New Delhi between Kathmandu-Beijing

New Delhi between Kathmandu-Beijing

By – Samrat Shrestha

The late king Prithivi Narayan Shah, the founder of unified modern Nepal stated that ‘Nepal’ is like “Dui Dhunga Bich Ko Tarul”, a Nepali saying which translates to “A yam between the two big rocks”. This gives us a slight hint of what the position of Nepal is between the two giant nations India and China. Nepal has always been able to maintain a balanced relation with both of these nations from a very long time. There might arise some disputes and disagreements of Nepal with both China and India now and then but no one can deny that Nepal cannot afford to jeopardize its relation in a permanently adverse manner with either of the two Asian giants. In this context, what purview and policies have guided Nepal’s China outlook and what does the future hold for Kathmandu-Beijing ties in context of the New Delhi balance?

Geopolitical significance of Nepal for China

Nepal is situated right in the middle of India and China, the major emerging economies in the world. Nepal has a vital geopolitical significance because of its geography as it is one of the major gateways to central and south Asia for China.  One of the reasons why China has invested so aggressively in Nepal is because of its geographical significance and Nepal can be one of the major routes for China to trade with other Asian economies like India which is already emerging as one of the biggest markets for China.  

Nepal has a significant role in the foreign policy of China as it shares around 1400kms of border with Nepal and it is a major concern for the national security of China’s territory as well. China is already one of the major superpowers of the world and it has already started to have influence on the other nations from its foreign policy strategies . Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one of the most ambitious projects of 21st century that was put forward by President. Xi which incorporates the development of infrastructures and connect more than a hundred nations via the route that China plans to build by 2049. Although India remains the biggest investor for Nepal , China comes second. There have been many projects in Nepal  under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), one of the major projects that China has pledged to develop  under BRI is the trans-Himalayan railway route that connects Kathmandu with Xigatse via the Kerung border which is located in Rasuwa of Nepal. 

Nepal’s disputes with India and China’s stand

Nepal was hit by a massive earthquake in 2015 that killed around 10000 people and just after few months of the earthquake India imposed a harsh economic blockade in Nepal (although India denies the same). India wanted Nepal to make amendments in the new constitution of Nepal and India showed its disagreements in the constitution that was put forward by Nepal back then. There was a humanitarian crisis in Nepal following the blockade as there was shortage of major essential things that was imported from India like LPG gas, medicines and Petrol. Despite having a “bhai bhai” (elder and younger brothers) relations with India, the tyrannical economic blockade left a grudge in the heart of majority of people in Nepal against India at that time. Although India has always come forward to help Nepal in times of crisis, that one event left a negative mark on Nepal – India relations.  China, however, came forward to help Nepal and supplied essentials via the Kerung (Rasuwa) border and urged India to remove blockade as it was a sign of a hegemony against Nepal. Many international medias also highlighted this issue at that time. 

A previously ongoing dispute between Nepal and India came forward because of the border issues at  Kalapani-Limpiyadhura. According to the Sughauli treaty that Nepal signed with British East India Company in 1815 Nepal claims the territory to be its own. Former Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli released a new map during the midst of the pandemic including the disputed area of Kalapani. India, however, has accused Nepal that it is acting in this way under the influence of China despite not mentioning China directly. The officials of China has not yet released a statement following this matter but it has taken this into consideration.  Despite all the disagreements with India, it still has a very good relations with Nepal and it will remain a “bhai bhai” in the future. There are bilateral talks happening to strengthen the relation with India in all aspects.

China in Nepali Politics

The bilateral diplomatic relations between Nepal and China were officially established in 1955. China was the fifth country that Nepal established diplomatic relations with as a sovereign multiparty democratic nation. The establishment of the diplomatic relation between Nepal and China was one of the major historical events of Nepal. After the establishment of Nepal – China diplomatic relationship, many treaties and agreements were signed between the two nations. There have been many high-level visits as well between the two countries that have helped to strengthen the relationship between Nepal and China.

China has shown its interest in Nepali politics for a long time and it has been a major development partner of Nepal for decades. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has also started its official relation with different political parties of Nepal. Even though the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) was groomed with the help of Communist party of India (CPI), NCP had no direct support or material support from Communist Party of China (CPC). However, the leaders of NCP were inspired by the revolutionary work of Mao and followed his path and morals to form a communist party in Nepa. Later the NCP was divided into other parties but they still followed the theories of Mao and the other faction of NCP was formed as Nepal Communist Party (Unified Marxist Leninist) in 1990 which later became oneof the major ruling parties of Nepal.

On the other hand, late B. P. Koirala was elected as the first prime minister of Nepal after being established as a democratic country in 1950. He visited China when he was still in power and established an official bilateral relation of his party Nepali Congress (NC) with the Communist Party of China (CPC) after meeting the Chairman of CPC Mao Zedong.  NC was the first non-communist party from Nepal to establish a bilateral relation with CPC. 

Recently when there was a dispute going on between the two factions {KP Sharma Oli and Madhav Kumar Nepal} of NCP, a high-level delegation from Communist Party of China (CPC) visited Nepal to help maintain the relation between two parties. Later it became a controversial topic in Nepal by the opposition parties on why is China interfering in the internal matters of Nepal. This shows us how much China is interested in political stability and overall phenomenon in Nepalese politics. 

Despite not having to release the official statement, China does not want Nepal to accept the counterpart of BRI in Nepal, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). MCC is an American foreign aid agency that provides aid to the developing nations to invest in infrastructures. Some believe that MCC is just another part of Indo Pacific strategy. China is definitely not in the favor of Indo Pacific Strategy because it is viewed as a strategy of USA to mitigate the rise of China as superpower and to minimize its dominance in the global economy. If MCC is passed in Nepal by the government there is no doubt that China is not going to be happy with the decision. However, there is this debate going on in Nepal whether to pass the MCC or not in the parliament of Nepal. Some politicians believe that MCC is just a grant to boost the energy sector in Nepal and nothing more while others believe that MCC will hamper the sovereignty of Nepal as US might deploy its military and create chaos in Nepal. The current Prime Minister, Deuba is known to be more tilted towards India and the USA rather than China from his political background and he is in favor of MCC while some of the leaders from the opposition parties like CPN (UML) are not in the favor of MCC. 

Potential of China-Nepal and Nepal-India ties

Nepal still has a huge amount of trade deficit with both India and China. If Nepal will be able do business in an efficient way with these giant economies there is no doubt that Nepal will head towards prosperity in no time. However, the environment for new startups and businesses are still not favorable in Nepal because of the lack quality education and proper training and more importantly the government policies are not entrepreneurial friendly which requires reforms from the policy level if we want to give capitalism a chance to thrive in Nepal. According to the doing business report of  The World Bank, Nepal falls in the bottom of the list among all the countries in the world which means that the environment is not quite friendly for new businesses to thrive in Nepal. Mother nature has gifted Nepal with so many wonders . The tourism sector of Nepal has a huge potential to attract tourists from all around the globe but it has not been able to do so because of lack of infrastructures and proper services facilities to the tourists. It requires funding from the foreign investors and there are many big investors in China and India willing to invest in Nepal if we can give them the proper environment  to make capital gains by reforming policies and by making it more investment friendly. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Nepal is still very low because of inappropriate policies of the government, high taxes on dividend and things like chronic energy crisis. These things must be reformed in order to attract FDI in Nepal. The total revenue  of Nepal is not enough to make like tourism and energy sectors to thrive without FDIs and grants from big economies like China, India and the USA.

China has been a major development partner of Nepal for a long time; there are many projects that were built using Chinese assistance . Some of the major projects that was made possible from the assistance of China in Nepal are – ‘Ring road’ of Kathmandu, Narayanghat – Mugling highway, hydropower projects like Sunkoshi and Upper trishuli, BP Koirala memorial cancer hospital and so on. There are many other projects going on from the assistance of  China under the BRI in different sectors of Nepal. Some Chinese investors hesitate to invest in Nepal because of its political instability, strikes, high customs duty, and overall lack of investment friendly environment and government policies. However, Nepal is becoming more politically stable after going through many political revolutions and changes throughout the years and the government of Nepal is working on making better policies for foreign investments in Nepal.  There are around 1200 Chinese firms that has invested in Nepal in different sectors mostly in infrastructure and manufacturing sectors.

After India, China is the biggest trade partner of Nepal. However, the trade deficit with both India and China is increasing at an alarming rate since the exports from Nepal to these countries are very low and imports is massive. Different institutions like Federation of Nepal Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FNCCI), Nepal China Chamber of Commerce of Commerce and Industries (NCCCI) and  Nepal India Chamber of Commerce and Industries (NICCI) are working to promote the export from Nepal to China and India to minimize the trade deficit. Likewise, Nepal heavily relies on India for its imports because of the easy transportation routes and India has been a major trading partner for Nepal from centuries. The trade route of Nepal and China, however, is much more complicated than that of India because of its geography as there lies Himalayas in the north and it is very hard to build roads for transportation. There are projects going on in Nepal China border to promote the trade via the Kerung border.

Nepal has enormous opportunities because of its geographical and geopolitical significance. The center of economic gravity is shifting more and more towards the east and economists predict that it will lie somewhere between India and China in few decades and Nepal must prepare well and make significant changes if it wants to reap the benefits from the massive growth of its two giant and powerful neighbours.

Samrat Shrestha is currently working as a secretary and a researcher at Institute for International Relations Nepal (IIRN). He is an undergraduate student at China Three Georges University (CTGU) with a major in International Relations. His interest span across fields of Politics, Economics, International Relations, Foreign Policy and Entrepreneurship.

China in Afghanistan: Ambitions, Apprehensions and Opportunities

China in Afghanistan: Ambitions, Apprehensions and Opportunities

By- Shreyas Deshmukh

It was on December 26, 2017 in joint press conference with foreign ministers of Afghanistan and Pakistan, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed firm intentions of expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to Afghanistan in a ‘proper manner’. Since then China intensified its efforts towards this direction with the help of Pakistan. A vital segment of this policy was establishing a cordial relationship between Afghanistan (now the Islamic Emirate) and Pakistan which would eventually lead towards partial stability in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, it was an opportunity to regain so-called strategic depth and re-establish secure connectivity to Central Asia. It is the same policy of transactional relationship Pakistan has with the US. 

Meanwhile, China continued with its vigilant approach towards developments in Afghanistan and focused only at the political engagement avoiding any major military and economic interventions. The reason would be British, Soviet and American experiences they have observed and studied carefully. Perhaps this also provided an understanding to put Chinese Afghan policy in the hands of Pakistan, because it is the closest ally they have in the region, who understands the national character of Afghanistan better than anyone else. Such third-party transactional relationships may continue in the future as well because Afghanistan is critical fragment of Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). After announcement of BRI in 2014 China emerged at the forefront as one of the chief negotiators in the Afghan peace process. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, since 2001-2013, it had 44 high level interactions with Afghan policy makers, but since 2014 until September 2, 2021, just in seven years it had 106 exchanges. 

Afghanistan in China’s Global Ambitions 

Vitality of the success of BRI is at the core of China’s ambition to become a global hegemon. For the last eight years, China has extensively spent economic and political capital to acquiring and building infrastructure projects in Eurasia and South Asia.  Official BRI website has listed six such land connectivity networks of which two westbound networks are the most important segments from strategic perspective as well as its energy and trade security.  These are China – Central Asia – West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC) and China – Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan is located at the centre of North-South Corridor where Central Asian Region countries will have close access to Karachi and Gwadar port in Pakistan. According to a World Bank report, if trade passes through Afghanistan, it will decrease shipping time by 10.3 per cent to 11.9 per cent for countries along the CCWAEC.

Bandar Abbas and Chabahar, or other Iranian ports could be another option, but are subject to volatile US-Iran relations which can lead to trade barriers. If US-China cold war intensifies, and the recent 25-year China-Iran agreement reaches productive implementation, then China will be the dominant force controlling most of the regional maritime and land-based trade routes. 

In early 2016, China started running two pilot projects for freight corridors. The first was from the city of Yiwu located in Eastern China to Tehran via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The second one was from Nantung in East China to Hairatan in Afghanistan via Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Later in June 2017, China stopped cargo trains to the dry port of Hairatan due to losses and poor infrastructure facilities. Since 2018, it has restarted efforts to relaunch this route because of feasibility for China to connect to Tehran and further to Central Asia and Europe. Now, it is trying to build a 657 km stretch of road between Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat, costing US$ 1.8BN with investments from the Asian Infrastrcuture Investment Bank (AIIB)has agreed to invest in the venture. In May 2018, China joined the Transport Internationaux Routiers (TIR) convention while Pakistan, which is a key partner in BRI, ratified the TIR in April 2018. This will help them move goods along the North-South Corridor. Iran has already launched a corridor based on TIR conventions and sent the first cargo using the same to Uzbekistan via Afghanistan on August 11, 2020.

The CPEC and CCWAEC have been advertised as the flagship projects of BRI. The volatility of Afghanistan and the fact that it lies in China’s backyard makes it a strategically important region for China. The country has been perceived as a ‘black hole’, with the potential to adversely impact development in the neighbouring region due to spreading instability and severing existing and emerging trade routes. 

Other than trade routes and security aspects, China is eying Afghanistan for its reserves of strategic minerals. Copper and Lithium are some of the key components for making electric vehicles, batteries and smart home systems; units China’s manufacturing industry invests heavily in. Afghanistan holds an estimated 1.88BN metric tons of iron ore alongside the world’s second largest supply of copper and lithium. Today, China controls most reserves of such strategic minerals in different parts of the world. The unexploited minerals in Afghanistan thus naturally remain a highly coveted resource for China; Beijing has been working on increasing its control over the same for little over a decade now. 

The exploration and development rights of the Aynak Copper Mine, which contains 5.5 million tonnes of high-grade copper ore, were secured by the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) and Jianxi Copper Company Limited (JCCL) in 2007 while the principal mining contract was signed in May 2008. Since then, the project has been stalled due to a variety of reasons including the deteriorating security situation. In April 2019, the Afghan Government announced that it will take a decision on the fate of this project, as it was finalising a new mining law.  On the other hand, MCC, by citing different reasons such as falling copper price, and slowing Chinese economy, wants to renegotiate the deal while dictating new terms and conditions. Now with the Taliban at the helm of affairs, its state-owned companies probability of getting the mining rights of mineral resources in the future cannot be denied.

The road forward for China?

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, the initial discussions between China and the Taliban leadership were cordial.   The political will and mandate of the Taliban is still unclear and the international community is apprehensive about legitimising the insurgent group. China’s own concerns vis-à-vis the Taliban are focused on groups like ETIM which threaten its own sovereignty. Once China’s doubts are assuaged, an official recognition of the Taliban by China could soon take place. The dilemma which existed earlier for Chinese policy makers and the choice they had made by not actively taking part in Afghan stability will not be a limiting factor anymore. 

Talks have already been initiated to connect Afghanistan with the CPEC. China proposed assessments to implement projects such as immigration reception centres, drinking water supply schemes and cold storage at crossing points between Afghanistan and Pakistan, construction of Quetta-Kandahar railway, Kabul-Peshawar Motorway and railway. Initial Soviet economic success in Afghanistan indicates that Afghans could be open to more economic engagement, if it does not precipitate revolutionary changes in its cultural and social fabric. This leaves a little wiggle room for China to use its economic heft, as it is already exploring the venue diplomatically. 

The ideal scenario China would be looking for is a stable Afghanistan with favourable disposition in power under which it can invest in connectivity and mining projects. It would like to revive mining at Aynak and expand CPEC to Afghanistan soon. Probability of opening of Chinese-Afghanistan border will remain low, as security in Xinxiang always remains a high priority at all costs. China has kept its economic ambitions on the back burner till political stability and security are restored in Afghanistan. Keeping aside China’s direct economic interests in Afghanistan, its global ambitions based on geo-economic strategies could be threatened by the risk emanating from Afghanistan in the Central and South Asian region. China has two options; either eliminate the threat or contain it within Afghan borders.

The increasing attacks on CPEC projects in Pakistan have alerted Chinese leadership which has been worried about such scenarios where rival powers may use instability in Afghanistan to threaten Chinese projects in the region. This will leave China in policy uncertainty on ground intervention into Afghan matters to contain activities of rival power within Afghan borders. It might use its economic leverage on its allies and partners to close borders and implement strict border controls.

Shreyas Deshmukh is a Research Associate with the National Security Program at Delhi Policy Group, a think tank in New Delhi, India. Prior to joining DPG, he worked with MitKat Advisory Services as a geopolitical risk analyst and Research Assistant at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS). He holds a master’s degree in defense and strategic studies from the University of Pune. He frequently writes on the geopolitical developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. His academic focus is socio-political and security issues in South Asia.

Will history repeat itself? How regional dynamics are shaping Russia-China relations

Will history repeat itself? How regional dynamics are shaping Russia-China relations

By – Rushali Saha 

The heavily publicized camaraderie between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin—at a time when U.S.-China strategic competition threatens to divide the world into Cold War type ‘spheres of influence’— has captured global imagination. Despite what the warm rhetoric may suggest about the relationship being based on shared values and common world views, ultimately their relationship is governed by a pragmatic assessment of shared interests, evolving largely as a response to U.S. foreign policy decisions. Washington’s latest foreign policy move to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan will inevitably impact China-Russia relations, possibly to their detriment as it holds the potential to exacerbate the existing cracks in their ‘uneasy entente.’

As global powers rush to fill the strategic vacuum that emerged in Afghanistan in the wake of America’s hasty withdrawal, China and Russia have already professed their commitment to work together to “prevent foreign forces from interfering and destroying” Afghanistan. While in the short term this works well for both countries which are looking for avenues to engage with the Taliban, it is hardly sustainable in the long run. Although China and Russia may share the common ambition of pushing Washington out of Asia, when it comes to Central Asia, there is less in common to hold them together. To be sure, both countries have worked out a rather convenient ‘division of labor’ which allows Beijing to focus on broadly economic activities under the rubric of BRI, while securing the political and military influence of Moscow. Yet, in the anarchic world of international relations, such an artificial distinction hardly survives. 

BRI, Central Asia and Afghanistan 

Projected as a “transcontinental long-term policy and investment program”—Central Asia plays a prominent role in Beijing’s geo-economic calculations due to its strategic location as the main land corridor in BRI, abundant natural resources, making it a prominent long-term investment destination. However, the militant activity in Central Asian countries together with the growing Sinophobia, is a major cause of concern for Beijing as it threatens its own economic investments in the region. To address this, China has adopted a two-way approach; increasing arms sale to Central Asian governments— which between 2015-2020 accounted for 18% of the region’s total arms sale— while also increasing security coordination and cooperation with regional government. Taking a leaf out of the Russian playbook—China is now using its own Private Military Companies (PMC’s) to protect and defend Chinese economic investments and infrastructure sites in Central Asia, where the PMC’s have been granted an expanded role in size and importance than in other regions. 

Although Russia has been involved in Chinese-Central Asian military cooperation since the end of Cold War—which they continue through the Shanghai Cooperative Organiation (SCO) —China’s increasing security presence is likely to disturb the uneasy entente characterising Russia-China cooperation in the region. Given Russia’s own economic miseries, military burden sharing with Beijing may seem lucrative, especially if Beijing successfully prevents the infiltration of terrorists and radical groups into Central Asia, but this economic incentive is unlikely to pacify the historically induced chronic insecurity and inferiority complexes that characterize Sino-Russia relations. The increasing fragility of Russia’s economy, and the need to present a united front to challenge Western authority, makes overt expressions of fissures within the Sino-Russian ‘alliance’ unlikely— nevertheless analysts have identified moves such as Kremlin’s invitation to link up with Eurasian Economic Unit as a move to contain Chinese influence in Central Asia.   

Any discussion on Central Asia’s politics is incomplete without factoring in the “Afghanistan factor.” Bordering three Central Asian nations—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan— the internal dynamics in Afghanistan inevitably have a profound effect on regional stability at large, due to the unique geography of the region. Parallel to China extending its influence in Central Asia, Beijing has also emerged as an important actor in Afghanistan in recent years—not only in terms of economic influence, but also political and diplomatic support. This places Beijing in a favorable position to dominate the affairs of what S Friedrick Starr famously described as “Greater Central Asia” back in 2008, which inevitably would diminish Russia’s influence in the region. Arguably it is too soon to predict how Chinese foreign policy will play out in post-American withdrawal Afghanistan, but reports indicate that Beijing is seriously considering BRI extension to Afghanistan. A possible option to integrate Afghanistan to BRI is through railway from Central Asia, but it remains unclear and comes with its own set of challenges

In tune with the larger currents of Sino-Russia relations, at first it may seem that Russia is strong supporter of BRI. Indeed, President Putin once described BRI-EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union) and EU coordination as an “integration of integrations”—later dropping EU, and replacing it variously with ASEAN, SCO etc. However, an independent study examining the coverage of BRI in major Russian newspapers between 2013 and 2019 reveal that Russian’s view on BRI is much more polarized, with some voices being especially suspicious about China’s intentions and ambitions. Yet another study which interviewed “Moscow-based political elites” reveals the more “alarmist” reaction among them, rather than one of optimism. Fundamentally, the artificial linking up fails to obscure the fact that EAEU and BRI have fundamental different economic rationales where the former is based on the principle of free movement of goods, services, finances and labour, whereas the latter is a series of infrastructure projects. 

Conclusively, it is evident that Afghanistan plays an important role in China’s own Central Asia calculations and U.S. withdrawal provides an opportune moment for Beijing to consolidate its presence in the larger region, which will not be without consequence for Moscow’s traditional position. At this juncture, it is worth recalling the famous quote often attributed to famous American author, Mark Twain—“history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” Until now the “strategic partnership” between Beijing and Russia has survived due to the latter’s tactic acquiescence to China taking the lead in economic affairs of the region, but with the changed regional and international dynamics it remains to be seen if the historically induced mistrust in Sino-Russian relations will resurface or stay at bay. 

Rushali Saha is currently serving as a Research Analyst at the Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Previously she served as a Research Associate at the Center for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. She holds a masters degree in Politics with International Relations from Jadavpur University. She graduated summa cum laude from the same university with an undergraduate degree in political science. Her research interests include the evolving geopolitics of Indo-Pacific, with a special focus on India’s foreign policies in the region.

  

South Korean SLBM – between narratives and broader consequences

South Korean SLBM – between narratives and broader consequences

By – Pawel Behrendt

In recent weeks media from South Korea informed about two successful tests of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Without any doubt, it is a huge win; Republic of Korea has joined an exclusive club of states with the “second strike” capability; furthermore, it is the sole non-nuclear state in this group. Nonetheless, the missile success brings forward many questions of strategic and geopolitical consequences.

According to media reports, the SLBM was test-fired from Dosan Ahn Chang-ho conventional submarine, the prototype vessel of the KSS-III class, which was commissioned in August this year. The KSS-III is distinguished from other conventional submarines by six K-VLS vertical launchers for the Hyunmoo-4-4 ballistic missile and Hyunmoo-3C cruise missile with a range of 1,500 kilometres. However, the ROK Navy decided that six launchers were not enough to create a credible deterrent system; hence, the ships of the second tranche are to receive more K-VLS, with the figure of ten most often mentioned in the media.

The ROK Ministry of National Defence has refused to confirm the details for security reasons; however, neither the tests nor the missile capabilities of the submarine were a surprise. Reports emerged in early July that South Korea launched the same type of SLBM from a submerged barge. Back then, the Naver portal had suggested that a test firing of a rocket from Dosan Ahn Chang-ho could take place soon. During the first September test, a missile was just ejected from a submerged vessel; two weeks later, it was launched.

The type of tested missile is not known, but most sources point to a modified version of the Hyunmoo-2B tactical ballistic missile with a range of 500 kilometres. The development of an indigenous SLBM was initiated in 2013 after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, and intelligence obtained the first information on an analogous missile north of the 38 parallel. The program was dubbed K-SLBM. Seoul officially revealed work on the missile in July 2017. This came after Pyongyang conducted its fifth nuclear test and successful tests of Pukguksong-1 and -2 SLBMs.

Further information about the K-SLBM emerged this spring. The military research and development agency Daejeon Sejong Research Institute (DSRI)is said to be working on three types of ballistic missiles derived from the Hyunmoo-2B and designated Hyunmoo-4. The Hyunmoo-4-1 is said to be for ground forces and designed to destroy North Korean bunkers and underground command posts; meanwhile, the Hyunmoo-4-2 is a ballistic missile for surface ships while the Hyunmoo-4-4 is the K-SLBM. No information is available on the Hyunmoo-4-3, and there is speculation that it may be a hypersonic missile.

South Korea’s ballistic missile journey

This is not the end of Seoul’s ambitions. The medium-term defence plan for the current decade, announced in August 2020, envisages the development of a new generation of submarines with a displacement of 3600-4000 tonnes carrying ballistic missiles. Both conventional and nuclear propulsion has to be under consideration. South Korea has been considering the construction of nuclear-powered vessels since 2003, but so far, technical and financial problems, as well as pressure from Washington, have stood in the way.

The US for years had curbed South Korea’s ballistic missile ambitions; the 1979 US-ROK military agreement limited the range of missiles to 180 kilometres. At the time, the United States intended to limit South Korea’s ability to attack targets north of Pyongyang and thus to deescalate tensions in the Korean Peninsula. These assumptions ceased to be valid with the development of North Korea’s missile programme. However, the agreement itself was not renegotiated until 2001, when the range of South Korea’s ballistic missiles was increased to 300 kilometres, while the maximum weight of a warhead remained at 500 kilograms.

In fact, the main concern of military planners in Seoul was the latter parameter. It was felt that a half-ton warhead would not provide adequate capability against North Korean bunkers and underground installations. Hence, in the next round of negotiations, South Korea demanded to increase the range of missiles to 1,000 kilometres and the weight of warheads to one tonne. However, the administration of President Barack Obama only agreed to increase the range to 800 kilometres. It was only in 2017 that President Donald Trump, ‘in-principle’, agreed to increase the warhead weight to one thousand kilograms.

Nonetheless, throughout such negotiations spanning years, South Korea was not discouraged. The range restriction was circumvented by introducing the Hyunmoo-3 cruise missiles, which are not covered by the treaty. It is also known that the already mentioned Hyunmoo-2 family missiles can carry 1,000-kilogram warheads, but this reduces their range. According to unconfirmed information, the Hyunmoo-4 missile can carry a warhead weighing up to 2 000 kg.

Finally, President Biden’s administration in May 2021 agreed to lift  all restrictions on South Korea’s ballistic missiles. Undoubtedly, Washington’s agreement is a major success for South Korean diplomacy. It is currently difficult to assess to what extent the decision to lift restrictions on South Korea’s ballistic missiles is related to the United States’ 2019 denunciation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). On the other hand, Seoul has announced that it does not intend to develop or deploy ballistic missiles with a range of over 800 kilometres.

Gauging Seoul’s outlook on SLBM’s

The reason for such a restrained approach is simple: Korea wants to avoid a missile arms race in East Asia. With a range of 800 kilometres, Hyunmoo-2C ballistic missiles, which are probably deeply modified Russian Iskander tactical ballistic missiles, can strike any target within North Korea. Such capabilities are a priority for South Korean planners. However, western Japan and parts of China and Russia are also within range of the Hyunmoo-2C. The Hyunmoo-3C cruise missiles have a range of 1,500 kilometres, and for the moment, their deterrence potential is considered sufficient.

The ROK leadership is aware that the development and introduction of medium- and/or intermediate-range ballistic missiles could provoke a response from China and Russia. Therefore, ROK carefully observes Beijing’s and Moscow’s reaction to its ballistic missile programme development. Another restraining factor is Japan. South Korea’s ballistic missiles would definitely deliver arguments to advocates of the idea that the Self-Defence Forces (SDF) should acquire the ability to strike enemy bases that threaten the country’s security. Such a step by Tokyo would definitely tilt the balance of power in North-East Asia and make an even greater contribution to the arms race in the region. As of now, none of the neighbouring powers expressed concern about the K-SLBM program, at least officially.

The lifting of the restrictions has, of course, provoked criticism from Pyongyang. The communist regime may fear a costly arms race that it will not be able to sustain. This fear was reflected when the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) –North Korea’s state media – accused Seoul and Washington of stimulating an arms race on the Korean peninsula and seeking to impede North Korea’s development. 

Despite such directives, K-SLBM program remains somewhat puzzling. The growing range of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as submarines armed with such weapons, speculate about Seoul’s ambitions to build capabilities enabling power projection not only in Northeast Asia but also the Indo-Pacific –even as South Korea remains wary of endorsing the Indo-Pacific concept. Such divagations are fuelled by the decision to build an indigenous light aircraft carrier.

However, South Korean official sources are clear: the range of ballistic missiles will be limited to 800 km. As pointed earlier, the ROK military is mainly interested in larger warheads able to destroy North Korean bunkers and underground command posts. The deterrence is aimed predominantly on the northern neighbour and presumes using ballistic and cruise missiles to eliminate North Korean leadership, command chain and crucial installations. Submarines armed with missiles are another asset strengthening the deterrence and enabling the second strike. Another reason to introduce such complicated systems is the simple fact that North Korea is doing the same. Also, under Moon-Jae In, South Korea has been actively trying to build itself as a strong, if not formidable, middle power; initiatives like the ‘New Southern Policy’ and Korean ‘New Deal’ have shown Seoul’s attempts to engage with neighbours and lead by example.

On the other hand, the South Korean deterrence may be in the longer perspective aimed at China and Japan. Given sour relations with both states and uncertainty about the US commitments, such an option seems valid. It raises, however, the question of the credibility of such a non-nuclear deterrence. Missiles with conventional warheads may not be necessarily effective to deter nuclear powers like China and North Korea.

An uncertain future

Does the ROK aim to go nuclear? Such a discussion has been going on since North Korea’s nuclear programme began. Proponents of this solution stress that the best way to deter a nuclear-armed enemy is to acquire its own nuclear weapons. They warn of the risk of becoming a political hostage to Pyongyang once it has successfully completed its nuclear and missile programmes. Another argument concerns the reliability of the US nuclear umbrella. 

Opponents of acquiring nuclear weapons warn of the risk of a domino effect and the unleashing of a regional nuclear arms race. The biggest concerns here are the reaction of China and the fear of Japan deciding to develop its own nuclear weapons. In such a situation, Pyongyang would also gain justification for its actions. In addition, ROK would have to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which could undermine its position in the international arena and, in extreme cases, expose it to sanctions.

The decision to respond to North Korea’s SLBM programme has given the ROK new capabilities and options. As of now, Seoul remains concentrated on Pyongyang and does not declare broader ambitions. However, this posture may change with the evolution of the geopolitical situation. Actions taken by Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, as well as ambitions of Korean leadership, are poised to shape the security arc of the region.

Pawel Behrendt is a Political Science PhD candidate at the University of Vienna. He is a Member of the Board at the Boym Institute in Warsaw and is a regular contributor to konflikty.pl.

EU’s Kabul Outlook Under the Taliban 2.0: Five Challenges for Europe

EU’s Kabul Outlook Under the Taliban 2.0: Five Challenges for Europe

By- Dr. Krzysztof M. Zalewski

There is no doubt that the US military and other parts of the American government played a major role in Afghanistan over the last two decades. But missions in Afghanistan were probably also the most substantial European external engagement in the recent history. Europeans were present in this country as part of the US-led NATO forces or representing the European Union and its individual member states. 

This was a considerable endeavor. Tens of thousands NATO security personnel from Europe served in Afghanistan for nearly two decades since 2002. Thousands of them were wounded and hundreds died under Hindu Kush. Operations in Afghanistan consumed a substantial part of EU member states’ military budgets. Since 2002, the EU has provided more than €4 billion ($4.7billion) in development aid to Afghanistan in order – as it was put in the EU documents – to contribute to peace, stability and democracy in the country, provide sustainable growth and jobs as well as basic social services. Individual member states’ commitment – e.g. Germany, France or Sweden – was even bigger. 

Thanks to international assistance from the US, EU and India among others, substantial social progress was achieved in the country over the last two decades. According to German data, school enrolment of boys and girls rose 12-fold, millions of people were supplied with energy and per capita income increased four-fold. Almost nine in ten Afghans acquired access to the basic health services which resulted in longer life expectancy (by nine years since 2002).

With the Taliban take-over in Afghanistan on August 16th this substantial European investment of political, economic and military resources in Afghan nation-building was put into question. What Western dominated Afghanistan failed in was the creation of a responsive government which could counter both internal and external threats, enjoying the trust of the Afghan people at the same time. Although the EU keeps unofficial contact with the Taliban government, it has very little influence on the situation in the country. Europeans have very limited capacities to protect infrastructural and social investments of the past two decades. The five benchmark approach approved in September by the EU foreign ministers is an important political signal for the Taliban, but it is not likely to change the course of their political actions substantially.

Moreover, the new political setting in Afghanistan creates dire challenges for the Europeans. First, migratory pressure is likely to grow. According to EU estimates, around 570,000 Afghans have applied for asylum in Europe since 2015, compared to 2.2 million Afghans registered in Iran and Pakistan alone (UNHCR data). Another 3.5 million people are internally displaced and may be forced to leave the country. Many others would not see their future in the country governed by radical fundamentalists.

The mass movement of people, if it starts, is not likely to be limited to Afghans themselves. The European public opinion – in this case quite uniquely likeminded – fears the uncontrolled wave of migration which they witnessed in 2014/2015. This migratory wave was triggered by Syrians escaping the war-torn country, but conflict refugees were joined on the way by many other people who wanted to reach the EU borders. Although the numbers may seem not substantial compared to more than 400 million of the combined EU population, many Europeans fear the consequences of uncontrolled and irregular migration which Afghan refugees can trigger. After 2015, the European leaders are also conscious of the political backlash on the continent. The recent migration policy crises deepened intra-European divisions on how to manage migratory flows and gave an opportunity for far-right parties to rise. The new crisis at the European borders is likely to put extra pressure on the EU and their political systems as well.

The authoritarian states bordering the old continent are aware of the European fragility. Many seem to excel in the politics of migratory pressure, once applied by Muamar Kaddafi, the Libyan leader, in 1990s and early 2000s. Today the regime in Minsk not only lets the people on the move to pass through Belarus, but they deliver people on purpose from the Middle East to the EU borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. It is also possible that new leaders in Kabul understand and take advantage of this European fragility. They may play the refugee card themselves and let people leave the country. 

The second challenge for the EU is of security. Taliban-governed Afghanistan was once a safe haven for terrorist groups. Observing the evolution of the movement, many hoped it will not promote religious extremism outside the country any more. But this optimism may be misplaced, as some prominent figures in the Taliban government, like Sirajuddin and Anas Haqqanis or Kais Wasiq, cooperated with the Al-Qaida network and organized terrorist attacks themselves. The more moderate fringe, who are focused primarily on the conservative revolution in Afghanistan, seems to be losing ground. Furthermore, the Taliban still seem to be diverse and the opportunities given to the international revolutionary jihadists may vary from province to province, without real control from Kabul. Even if Europeans would like to mitigate security risks by means of diplomacy and economic pressure, it is unclear whether they will find a reliable partner among the new rulers in the Afghan capital. 

Moreover, the Taliban movement relied heavily on income from the production of drugs and their trafficking in the last two decades. A major destination for their trade was Europe. As Josep Borell, the coordinator of the EU external policies recently recognized, the political handover in Afghanistan may result in the spike of criminal activities related to drugs. 

Migration, jihadist revolutionary zeal, terrorist networks and the drug industry – they all create the third key challenge for Europe: instability in broader Central Asia, which is Europe’s strategic backyard. Political systems in these autocratic republics are challenged more by religious extremist groups than by democratic opposition. Migration from Afghanistan and the export of jihadist ideology may destabilize the entire region in which political systems fail to satisfy the ambitions of young nations, especially as the number of people in the five post-Soviet republics is growing steadily. With the exception of Kazakhstan, the regional leader, other countries seem to be in a rather dire economic situation. Weakened by the combined of pandemics and droughts, they are currently especially vulnerable.

The fourth European challenge in Afghanistan is value-based. Ursula von der Leyen, EU’s Commission President, made bold promises for the Afghans in the spirit of European values in her recent state of the union address: “We stand by the Afghan people. The women and children, prosecutors, journalists and human rights defenders (…) We must support them and we will coordinate all efforts with Member States to bring them to safety”. She also declared an increase in humanitarian assistance for Afghans in the country. These heartening promises bare the risk of not delivering at par with overly high expectations. If they are not fulfilled, it would further undermine European credibility, both in the region and globally. In the current political setting in the country, the EU relies on the goodwill of the Taliban leadership, as well as cooperation with Pakistan, Russia and China. 

Here we come to the fifth European challenge made visible by the Taliban takeover. It is connected to the transatlantic relationship with the US, still central for European security. In the European perception, NATO followed its biggest member in order to fight a common security threat. Europeans invested in all possible terms in this mission triggered by the American call on Art. 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states an obligation to collective defense.  The recent American decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan was not a surprise for the European NATO allies and other US partners in the EU (only 21 out of 27 EU member states belong to NATO as well). But the precise timing of this operation, the style in which the decision was communicated and its chaotic execution deepened divisions between the Europeans and the American administration. 

The Afghan mission was a collective endeavor. Yet the American departure was unilateral. The US decided to leave Afghanistan without taking the interests of their European allies into consideration. It became once more apparent for the Europeans that they rely on American power extensively in global affairs, and that the US will not support European external investment or common ambitions, especially when it clashes with its own national interests of the moment.

For instance, the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) pact has been finalized by the three powers where none of the American EU allies was even invited. At the same time, the French submarine deal for Australia was cancelled and replaced by an agreement between Canberra and Washington. Central European NATO and EU members were surprised this summer by lifting of US sanctions on North Stream II, a gas pipeline clearly endangering their energy security. The conclusion in surprisingly many EU capitals is clear: even a Democratic US administration does not take European interest into account, and can occasionally play against European allies.

This perception is likely to have a profound impact on European security policy. Voices demanding the creation of strategic autonomy for the EU are becoming louder. In the best-case scenario European strategic autonomy does not necessarily mean an anti-American pivot; it should rather aim at building abilities to act in matters of security independently from its major NATO ally. Even the biggest investment on the international stage has little impact if one cannot defend them. In a more realistic prospect, Brussels and Washington will be drifting apart. The Afghan lesson will be carefully studied on the Old Continent. One should hope it may also lead to forging new enhanced partnerships by Europe on the global stage. It would involve careful diplomacy in Islamabad and Central Asian capitals. Hopefully, the Kabul collapse may bring New Delhi and European capitals – not only Brussels, Berlin and Paris – closer together. As a recent piece by Manoj Joshi demonstrated, New Delhi has considerations about the limits of partnership with the United States similar to those analyzed in the EU. Substantial Indian development cooperation projects in Afghanistan are at stake, sharing probably the fate of European investments. Indians and Europeans will face security threats arising from Afghanistan, in the form of violent religious fundamentalism, terrorism and criminal activities related to drugs. Our partners in Central Asia may need concerted assistance; cooperation in these areas is possible under frameworks created by recent India-EU summits. All partners will do wisely if they try to address multiple challenges arising from the Taliban takeover in a coordinated manner. 

Dr. Krzysztof M. Zalewski serves as the President of the Board of the Boym Institute (Warsaw, Poland). He writes about European foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific as well as digital and energy transformations in the region. Krzysztof previously worked at the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna (2014-2016), at the Foreign Relations Office of the Chancellery of the President of Poland (2010-2014), at the Polish Parliament (2009-2010) and at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw (2009).

Will China be able to neutralize AUKUS through CPTPP?

Will China be able to neutralize AUKUS through CPTPP?

By- Radomir Romanov 

This article is the second one of a two-part series by the author. Read the first part,Understanding the strategic rationale of AUKUS‘ here.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has applied through New Zealand to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Thus, Beijing seeks not only to join the ranks of this organization, but at least partially neutralize the anti-Chinese bloc AUKUS, created under the auspices of the United States. Losing to the United States and its allies in the military field, Beijing decided to win back points in the economic sphere, not without reason hoping that cooperation in this area would be able to keep a number of countries from being unfriendly towards the PRC. Beijing has been considering joining the organization since 2020, but Washington’s anti-Chinese policy has undoubtedly strengthened the determination of the Chinese leadership to become a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The prospects for a decision are not yet clear: the application may be considered for a rather long time or may be rejected. СРТРР is a trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Vietnam, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Chile, Japan. It evolved from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which never went into effect due to the withdrawal of the United States in 2017, when Trump gave Japan the initiative to reform the TPP into the СРТРР. However, Washington maintains its influence with the organization through Japan and Canada. In addition to these states, a significant part of the organization’s members is under the influence of the United States: this is, at least, Mexico, Australia, Singapore, Chile. Therefore, the entry of the PRC into the organization can be rejected under any plausible pretext.

The United Kingdom is a potential member of the organization. Although the official application has not yet been filed, a working group was established in London in June 2021 to prepare for joining the СРТРР. Britain may well enter the organization in the near future. This will further strengthen the forces unfriendly to China in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Beijing is ready to act with the help of “soft power”, actively carrying out investments and joint projects in the countries of Southeast Asia and Latin America. However, the United States will also retain a fairly strong political position in the region. America remains the strongest military power in the world, and this is what Washington is counting on in its confrontation with China.

With respect to a number of Asian countries (Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore), Washington can act without involving them directly in AUKUS (although it would be easier to control allies in a single military-political bloc), and through bilateral allies contracts. The United States already has similar agreements with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. There are US military bases in Singapore, Japan, and South Korea. Military-technical cooperation and the supply of American weapons to the countries of the region are underway.

The United States has formidable political influence in Indonesia and Vietnam. From these countries one can expect at least “friendly neutrality” towards Washington.

Why then did China apply?

The PRC acts by analogy with the USSR, which filed an application to join NATO in 1954. If joining the СРТРР nevertheless takes place, Beijing will have the opportunity to somehow influence the organization’s policy. If China is refused, it is possible to win ideologically: the PRC is ready for cooperation, and the United States and its allies are the real aggressor, shaking the situation in the region.

So does China have a response to the new US-UK-Australia alliance? 

Today’s talks between the PRC and the two leaders of the Pacific island states (the Solomon Islands and Tonga) seem to me to be a kind of response to the new US-UK-Australia trilateral partnership.

The states of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia have become a kind of rivalry for influence between the United States and China. These small countries are strategically important because of their geographic location.

Beijing has systematically built bilateral relations with the small island countries of the Pacific Ocean and expanded its economic, technical and humanitarian influence in the region.

China actively invests in the countries of the region, draws on their strong economic dependence, probably in order to “politely ask” over time to place its own logistics facilities on the territory. In connection with the potential for expanding the Chinese military presence, East Timor, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, as well as the Kingdom of Tonga, which owe China an amount of almost 25% of its GDP, are often mentioned.

Beijing’s main interest in the Pacific Islands is due to the need to resist pressure from the United States, which has only been growing lately. The American system of containment of the PRC is actively operating in the region, better known as the first (Okinawa-Taiwan-Philippines) and second (Japan-Guam-Indonesia) chain of islands.

And if China still does not have naval bases in the region (for example, in 2018 the Vanuatu government politely refused to deploy), then there are still some diplomatic successes. Two years ago, the Solomon Islands, located at a distance of less than 2,000 km from Australia, officially established diplomatic relations with China and recognized the policy of one China.

Countries of Asia

Japan has already become actively involved in anti-Chinese initiatives. At the same time, Tokyo is even more interested than Washington in attracting non-regional players to contain China. This will give the Japanese more room to maneuver. Japan and Great Britain are now building especially close contacts.

South Korea is obliged to adhere to a pro-American and anti-Chinese line. The relationship between Korea and China is much more complicated and confusing. Seoul does not join Quad and is cautiously looking towards the Five Eyes intelligence alliance precisely because it does not want to unnecessarily spoil relations with Beijing. The situation is aggravated by the traditional enmity of South Korea with Japan. Ultimately, the Americans will almost certainly be able to involve the South Koreans in one format or another, but it will be difficult to rely on them in the confrontation with the PRC.

Taiwan is still a headache for all sides. The island is extremely important, but in terms of its own defenses it is far from the outpost, and the reality of the joint Taiwanese-American command today looks doubtful (although it is possible in the future).

Singapore relies on the Americans and their allies in ensuring regional security, primarily because it does not consider them a threat to its own sovereignty. Therefore, Singaporeans reacted positively to the creation of AUKUS in general, although they expressed concern. The latter is due to the common fear for most Southeast Asian countries of being caught between a rock and a hard place in the event of a tough Sino-American conflict. Singapore will try to maneuver between the parties, remaining geopolitically on the side of the West, but maintaining trade and economic ties with China.

Of the Southeast Asian countries, only the Philippines has clearly welcomed AUKUS so far, saying that the partnership “will be able to maintain the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.” It seems that this is a direct consequence of the resumption of military-political contacts after the visit to Manila by the head of the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin. In response, the Filipinos are hoping to get the Americans to make specific commitments on the South China Sea (we can only wish them luck).

But with Thailand it is more difficult. For most of Trump’s presidency, Bangkok was practically ignored by the Americans due to restrictions on contacts with military regimes. Attempts to resume relations appeared only by mid-2020, when the same General Prayut had been elected prime minister for a year already. The Biden administration has not yet shown much interest in Thais, and Lloyd Austin and Kamala Harris have not included the country in their regional tours.

At the same time, American experts themselves especially emphasize the importance of the Philippines and Thailand for the defense strategy and US interests in the region.

India is the main prize the United States will fight for. To create a full-fledged system of deterring China in Indo-Pacific, three major players must participate in the anti-Chinese coalition at once: Japan, Australia and India.

If this trio, together with the United States, began to restrain China, then the balance of power will be strongly not in favor of the latter. But the Americans will obviously be able to drag South Korea, the Philippines and some states of Southeast Asia into the union.

In general, China is in a difficult situation, and a more careful policy in India could make it easier. In the global game, the main thing for Beijing now is to achieve the neutral status of this country in the American-Chinese confrontation.

It is interesting that with regard to Russia, China’s task is clearly the opposite. Prevent Moscow’s neutrality in the Cold War, keeping it as a partner (albeit without a formal military community). By the way, this will not be easy either, because for all the friendship, there are also plenty of problems in Russian-Chinese relations.

In the story with AUKUS, it is really important to pay attention to the strengthening of the role and weight not so much of the United States or even Australia, but of Great Britain. London is the only one in this trio that does not directly belong to the Asia-Pacific (Indo-Pacific) region, but thus acquires a privileged status. In addition, the British are increasing their diplomatic and trade and economic presence in Southeast Asia, receive the status of a dialogue partner with ASEAN, apply for the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and, as a show of force, have brought their aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Radomir Romanov is Senior Officer of Asia-Pacific International Institutions and Multilateral Cooperation Studies Center at the Far Eastern Federal University. He completed his Bachelors in “Interpretation and Translation Studies” at the Department of Japanese Studies and Masters from Cchool of International Relations at the Department of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Mongolian Languages.

Countering China’s Influence in West Asia through India-Iran Relations

Countering China’s Influence in West Asia through India-Iran Relations

By – Siddhant Nair
Beyond politics in the immediate neighborhood of the two Asian giants, West Asia is another critical region poised to play an essential role in the future of India-China relations.  In this regard, Iran has been central to India and China in not only energy trade but also connectivity ambitions. For both countries, Iran is the key to the landlocked Central Asian region. 

Under the Trump Administration, the United States pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and imposed crippling sanctions on Iran, pushing Iran further towards China. The two countries announced a 25-year agreement, and Iran officially became part of China’s mammoth infrastructure focused Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

India, on the other hand, stopped importing Iranian oil after its waiver expired in 2019. Additionally, progress over the Chabahar Port stalled as Iran accused India of delaying investments due to the US sanctions. Despite a slow-down of relations between the two countries, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited the then-president-elect Ebrahim Raisi and attended his swearing-in ceremony. However, now that the 25-year agreement has been announced between Iran and China, what does this development mean for India? More importantly,  how can India balance China’s influence in the region through Iran? 

India’s relations with the West and Iran:

West Asia has been an important source of remittances and fuel imports for India. In the 1970s, the number of Indians working in the Gulf dramatically rose after the oil boom. When the Indian diaspora in the region continued to grow, India set up a Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs in 2004. 

Under Narendra Modi’s “Look West” policy, India increased its engagement with the region; particularly the Gulf states, Iran and Israel. Modi visited Israel in 2017 and signed multiple agreements ranging from international development, agriculture and space cooperation. Modi’s visit to Israel showcased Palestine’s falling priority in Indian foreign policy, a contrast during the Cold War when India stood with the people of Palestine.

For India, growing closer to Iran is central to containing China, while also ensuring a cheap supply of energy sources and security in Central and West Asia. Importantly, India is in a unique position to increase its relations with Iran and influence West Asia. Despite Iran signing a 25-year agreement with China, India’s relation with Iran and the West will be vital in containing China. By using its relations with the West as leverage, India could strengthen its ties with Iran. For the United States, India growing close to Iran would mean India playing an active role in the region while obstructing China’s growing influence. Combined with India’s non-permanent membership at the United Nations Security Council, India could advocate for a neutral JCPOA and lifting sanctions off Iran’s economy, which is central to Iran’s economic relief. Additionally, India could play a vital role in promoting dialogue between Iran and the West, similar to Japan. Bringing normality back would be vital for Iran’s economic and diplomatic systems.

Iran-China’s 25-year agreement and the opportunity for India

The two countries signed a cooperation agreement that was initially announced when sanctions were lifted from Iran in 2016. Reports suggest that China will invest up to $400 billion in Iran, helping Iran diversify its energy sector by investing in renewable energy, modernizing its old infrastructure and railway lines in cities. The 25-year agreement, however, is just a roadmap for the two countries. The agreement does not contain any contracts or legally binding documents. In the next 25 years, the agreement will give the general direction the two countries will head towards. 

The agreement presents a unique opportunity for India. As the 25-year agreement is not a commitment for the long term, India could show its own commitment to Iran and the region. By intensifying the construction of Chabahar Port and committing more resources to the project, India could show Iran how serious it is in strengthening its relations. Chabahar port has commercial and strategic importance for Iran. As Iran has access to the landlocked Central Asian countries, the Chabahar port will be an essential outlet for these states, making Iran a critical transit hub. Strategically and commercially, the Chabahar port will shift the focus away from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman. The Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz are central to tensions, conflicts, and shipping attacks. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the US military have often had confrontations in the region. Israeli ships were attacked, and Israeli authorities accused Iran for the attacks. An Iran-owned vessel was sunk in June as well after it caught fire. Shifting to the Gulf of Oman will bypass the Strait of Hormuz, allowing Iran to limit movement through the Persian Gulf, and reduce shipping routes distance. 

India’s Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) with Australia and Japan is another initiative through which India can attract Iran. The SCRI will be an attractive prospect for Iran as Iran could attempt to not be overly dependent on China and diversify its trade and economic relations with multiple countries. Additionally, the SCRI could give Iran options out of diplomatic and international isolation. 

Iran and Japan have maintained friendly ties with each other, despite unilateral sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, who also met Ebrahim Raisi, visited his Iranian counterpart to discuss strengthening bilateral ties, reviving the JCPOA, and ensuring stability in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. West Asia is a crucial region for Japan as nearly 90% of crude oil imports come from the region. Japan is also looking to play a mediator role between Iran and the United States, promoting dialogue between the two countries and ensuring the revival of the JCPOA. 

Australia and Iran continue to share positive bilateral relations with each other, maintaining their diplomatic ties with Iran since 1968. Between 2006 and 2010, Australia imposed sanctions on Iran in compliance with the United Nations Security Council. Additionally, Australia imposed further autonomous sanctions on Iran that have remained unchanged even with the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA. Despite sanctions, Australia and Iran continue to work on multiple issues ranging from human rights, terrorism, regional stability, to human smuggling. Additionally, trade between the two countries reached $319 million in 2019-20. 

Bringing Iran into SCRI will be beneficial for India, too, as the SCRI aims at increasing maritime security and ensuring freedom of the seas. Protecting Chabahar port will be essential for Indo-Iranian relations and for India to maintain its strategic presence in the region. As the central agenda of SCRI is reducing over-dependence on China and diversifying supply chains, introducing Iran into the mix will help counter China’s influence in the region. Moreover, as both Japan and Australia share good ties; the three countries are likely to come to a consensus to include Iran into SCRI. However, no discussions of an expansion of SCRI have come up yet.

Concerns over Taliban-controlled Afghanistan:

Both Iran and India share security concerns over Afghanistan, which provides another realm where the two countries can cooperate and deepen their relations. Iran shares a 900 kilometers long border with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Sectarian differences are at the heart of tensions and conflict in West Asia, and Iran-Afghanistan will be no different. Iran is a Shia-majority country in a Sunni-dominated region, whereas Afghanistan is a Sunni majority country. Additionally, waves of Afghan refugees have been fleeing the Taliban takeover and have sought refuge in Iran. The new waves of refugees will add additional strain on Iran’s economy. Drugs production and trade will be another problem for the region, as Afghanistan was the primary source of opium and produced up to 80% of the world’s stock. 

Stability in Afghanistan is essential for India, as, over the course of 20 years, India has made nearly $3 billion in investments in Afghanistan’s infrastructure. Afghanistan under the Taliban’s control could become a haven for militant groups. In the past, militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad attacked India while operating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. These militant groups would be a security concern for Iran as well due to the sectarian differences between the Taliban and Iran. 

On the other hand, China had held diplomatic talks with the Taliban even before they took over Afghanistan. The Taliban would welcome investments from China into Afghanistan. For China, the Taliban staying out of China’s handling of the Xinjiang region will be essential for China-Taliban relations to progress. 

Iran and India have their security interests aligned over the Taliban and Afghanistan. With the Taliban in control of the governance of Afghanistan, stability in the region is their biggest concern. Reinvigorating the Afghan economy is a priority for the Taliban, and Chabahar port will provide Afghanistan with access to open seas, increase connectivity for trade and reduce logistical costs. Hence, the India-Iran bilateral should be prepared with a stronger Kabul policy which they can implement with the Taliban. 

India can also provide resources and rehabilitation support to Iran with the new wave of Afghani refugees fleeing the Taliban takeover. As mentioned earlier, the refugee wave is likely to add additional strain on Iran’s economy. India’s support in helping Iran handle the crisis will alleviate some pressure off its economy. 

India has found itself in a unique position that, if capitalized upon, will not only increase India’s sphere of influence in West Asia and Central Asia but also reduce China’s growing influence in the region. India should advocate for dialogue between the US and Iran, using its relations with both countries to bring them to the table. India and Iran can also strengthen ties with each other, with Chabahar Port playing a central role. In order to bolster Chabahar Port, India could introduce the idea of expanding the SCRI to include Iran. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan presents another opportunity for the two countries to work together on. As China has been holding talks with the Taliban and working to legitimize their control, India could bolster relations with Iran over Afghanistan to undermine Chinese influence in the region.  

Siddhant Nair is currently a research intern with ORCA. He is studying at FLAME University, pursuing a diploma in interdisciplinary research and studies. He is interested in current events and international politics. Having interned with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, he has great interest in China and how the West chooses to respond to China. He has worked on an article that highlighted the historical significance of Tamil Nadu in India-China relations. He can be reached on Twitter @siddhant__nair.

Understanding strategic rationale of AUKUS

Understanding strategic rationale of AUKUS

By- Radomir Romanov

This article is the first one of a two-part series by the author. Read the second part, ‘Will China be able to neutralize AUKUS through CPTPP?‘ here.

On September 15, 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America created a new format for trilateral security cooperation – AUKUS. At a joint press conference , the leaders of the three states stated that the objective of such cooperation is the strengthening of security and stability in the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR), a joint response to security challenges, and an increase in Australia’s defense potential. All of them pointed to the difficult strategic situation in the region, growing instability, and the emergence of new threats.

Within the framework of cooperation, the interaction of the parties will be expanded in the areas of regional policy, coordination of joint actions, cyber security, artificial intelligence, and underwater space. Cooperation between the naval forces, scientists and the defense industry will develop. The most important area of ​​work is the joint development of technologies by Australia for the creation of a nuclear submarine fleet with conventional weapons. It was especially noted that in this case, the technologies of nuclear weapons and peaceful atom will not be transferred to Australia. This process is likely to take more than a decade; the exact parameters of trilateral cooperation in this area will be worked out over the next 18 months. The production of submarines will take place in the area of ​​the city of Adelaide in South Australia, on the coast of the Bay of St. Vincent.

The United States and the United Kingdom have significant scientific and technological potential in the areas of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. In the field of the nuclear submarine fleet, these two countries have many years of experience: United States has had submarines of this class since 1954, Great Britain – since 1960.It is important to note that the creation of the British nuclear submarine fleet took place in close cooperation with the United States after the parties concluded a defense agreement in 1958. This was, to this day, the only precedent for the transfer of US nuclear submarine technology to another state. Later in 1962, an agreement was signed to sell Polaris ballistic missiles to the United Kingdom. In future, defense cooperation between the two states continued to develop, turning into a so-called special relationship.

In this regard, the creation of the AUKUS format is an extremely important event in world politics. Australian Prime Minister S. Morrison does not hide the fact that his country plans to buy Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States. However, many fear that Australia’s future nuclear submarines will potentially be equipped with US and UK nuclear weapons. Experts also express concern that for the first time a loophole was used in the text of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, according to which non-nuclear countries are allowed to build nuclear submarines, warehouses with materials for reactors are monitored by the IAEA, and this opens up an opportunity for creation of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear countries. 

So, why do Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States need such a new format for defense cooperation? There are mutual concerns for all, as well as their own individual motives that highlight the rationale behind AUKUS, and what it means for their ties with China.

The prerequisite for expanding the interaction of the three countries can be called their historical, cultural, ideological, legal, identity and civilizational community, significant experience of allied relations during the 20th and early 21st centuries. The parties are members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (which also includes Canada and New Zealand), have bilateral defense cooperation mechanisms, support each other on many international issues, and have similar positions on international crisis situations and conflicts.

The main reason for the creation of AUKUS is the continuous strengthening of China’s defence engineering and technical security developments and the desire of US-Australia-UK to restrain Beijing’s political and military potential. The appearance of nuclear submarines in the Australian Navy will lead to a strategic balance between China and Australia in the underwater space, equalizing the capability possibilities of the parties. Australia’s anticipated robust cybersecurity and AI development through triangular cooperation is also geared towards countering threats from China. As Canberra-Beijing ties deteriorate, it is understandable that Australia is looking to protect its national security and interests by turning to two of its oldest partners in the West. 

Australia’s position vis-à-vis China is twofold. On the one hand, it is the country’s largest foreign economic partner in both exports and imports. The parties closely cooperate on such issues as the fight against transnational crime, scientific relations, student exchange, tourism, migration, together they solve many regional problems. On the other hand, Australia pursues two strategic tasks in the region: firstly, supporting its ally, the United States, in terms of shaping the regional order and secondly, strengthening its own leadership in the South Pacific region. The first is essential to counterbalance China’s power. The second is to counter China’s growing economic and military presence in Canberra’s strategic neighborhood of influence, the South Pacific. There are also ideological contradictions between the Australia-China which have grown post-pandemic. Yet, Australia is not ready for an open escalation in relations with China, especially as its defensive power is rather limited. The assistance of the United States and Great Britain in this regard is definitely in its national interests.

The United States views China as the main immediate challenge to its national security and worldwide presence. We can say that the conflict between the United States and China is the main intra-systemic contradiction of the global world. Economic differences aside, it is clear that China’s military build-up in the past decade and its foreign policy ambitions are of serious concern to the United States. Hence, it is seeking to surround China with a system of its own military alliances, to achieve a military advantage in the engineering and technical personnel, especially in the South China Sea. To realize these goals, Washington seeks to use its participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Australia, India and Japan,  the ANZUS alliance (Australia and New Zealand are also members), develop bilateral defense cooperation mechanisms with a number of states in the region, and strengthen its military presence in the Pacific. Australia is one of the main strategic allies of the United States in defence engineering and technical development; as partners they conduct military exercises,  cooperate in the defense industry, in the field of foreign direct investment in the defense industry, and the United States troops rotate via the island state. Protecting the South Pacific from Chinese expansion is fully in line with American interests, and Australia plays a key role in this area of ​​US foreign policy.

As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, China can hardly be called its main adversary on the world stage. Just six years ago, there was talk of a “golden era” in British-Chinese relations, and Britain was striving to make China the second largest export destination after the United States, despite ideological contradictions, primarily due to the situation in the former British colonies of Hong Kong and Taiwan. After the collapse of the colonial empire, British military-political interests were mainly concentrated in Europe.

However, in the context of Brexit, the United Kingdom has developed a “Global Britain” strategy, in accordance with which it seeks to increase its economic and political presence in regions of the world outside of Europe, including in the IPR. The focus in this region is on key allies – the United States, Australia and New Zealand. In addition to the aforementioned formats, the UK also participates in the Five-Power Defense Arrangements with Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore. More recently, the  United Kingdom’s Indo-Pacific outlook has seen sharp focus with it sending an aircraft carrier group to the South China Sea and improving ties with India to bring in a “new era” in bilateral ties; it has also announced that it will permanently deploy two war-ships in the Indo-Pacific.. Against the background of a number of contradictions with China that have arisen in recent years, caused only in part by US pressure on the UK, the country is in significant political gain from the new AUKUS format. Firstly, it is expanding its military-political presence in thedefence technology and engineering domain. Secondly, its already close ties with Australia and the United States are strengthening, now in a new capacity after leaving the European Union. Thirdly, the development of nuclear submarine technology for Australia is economically beneficial for the United Kingdom. Finally, the consequence of the creation of the AUKUS format was the termination of the contract between Australia and France for the supply of the first batch of 12 diesel submarines totaling almost 56 billion euros —- and this is a political victory of Great Britain over one of the leaders of the European Union.

The creation of the AUKUS format naturally drew criticism from China; Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson has termed it as “obsolete Cold War” thinking, although the containment of China was not openly called by the leaders of the three states the goal of the new alliance. It is significant that the Prime Minister of New Zealand, another Anglo-Saxon state and Australia’s closest ally in the IPR, Jacinda Ardern said that her country opposes nuclear technologies in the region, so it could not become a member of AUKUS. In this context, we can note the downgrading of New Zealand’s status for the collective West, which may lead to further disagreements between this country and Australia and US policy in the region, even as the three share ANZUS and Five-Eyes alliances

Most likely, in response to the creation of the AUKUS format, China will continue to even more actively build up its military power and defense capabilities in the engineering and technical personnel. The consequence of this will be an acceleration of the arms race in the region, which means an increase in the likelihood of dangerous incidents in the future.

Radomir Romanov is Senior Officer of Asia-Pacific International Institutions and Multilateral Cooperation Studies Center at the Far Eastern Federal University. He completed his Bachelors in “Interpretation and Translation Studies” at the Department of Japanese Studies and Masters from Cchool of International Relations at the Department of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Mongolian Languages. 

China’s Frantic Scramble for ‘Common Prosperity’: Premise, Promises and Problems

China’s Frantic Scramble for ‘Common Prosperity’: Premise, Promises and Problems

By – Mahima Duggal

2021 has been a year of critical importance to China; in July the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its centennial anniversary, as President Xi Jinping announced the completion of a moderately prosperous society. With Xi now rallying the Chinese people to realise the CCP’s second centenary goal—to build a “great modern socialist country”—achieving ‘common prosperity’ (共同富裕, Gongtong fuyu) as part of promoting people’s well-being has emerged as a priority under the CCP’s long-term agenda. On August 17, at the 10th Central Committee for Financial and Economic Affairs (CCFEA) meeting of the CCP, Xi called for China’s elite to promote ‘common prosperity’ in undertaking “high-quality development” and “forestalling major financial risks”. 

Such focus on the ‘common prosperity’ ideal essentially entails narrowing the sharp wealth gap and widening socio-economic inequality that not only threatens the upward economic trajectory of China but also the political legitimacy of the CCP. It has massive implications for the how we may see the Chinese economy moving forward, since it essentially puts equal income distribution and people-centred development across various industrial sectors and geographies at the helm of China’s economic ideology and modernisation plans. With Chinese elites now scrambling to take forward and effectively realise Xi’s undoubtedly ambitious and complicated vision, what does ‘common prosperity’ mean, how is it being promoted, and what are the underlying connotations and implications of the notion? 

From Mao to Xi: ‘Common Prosperity’ in Chinese Socialism

The idea of ‘common prosperity’ is far from a new development in Chinese socialism, but has been a recognised feature of China’s promoted modernisation model since the 1950s. It was first mentioned in party documents during the Mao Zedong era at a time when the Chinese economy was highly unstable. Under Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s ‘common prosperity’ philosophy took a back burner in favour of a new “quasi-capitalist” economic development strategy. This open-door economic policy focused on achieving rapid growth (through strategies like attracting foreign capital, building economic and technological zones, and supporting a domestic entrepreneurial activity spurt). Although it had clear positive outcomes in thrusting China into a new economic bracket (or status), this has also brought about some serious negative repercussions; the extreme gap between the rich and the poor ranks top amongst these. 

Under Mao’s socialist economy, despite low national incomes and sub-par living standards, there was little inequality—which was a phenomenon deemed far more deplorable than poverty under the communist ideals. However, under Deng Xiaoping’s open-door economic policy, disparate growth with high speed, for instance in coastal provinces (under a coastal development strategy) over inland regions, was deemed acceptable, if not preferable. Overtime, even though China has become the world’s second-largest economy by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), continued emphasis on an ‘efficiency first’ economic growth policy, even if unequally distributed, has resulted in a wide wealth gap between the coastal and inland regions and urban and rural societies. For example, as of 2019, average disposable income per capita in Shanghai (69,441 yuan) is almost four times higher than those in the Gansu province (19,139 yuan). Furthermore, 10 percent of the richest own a growing portion of China’s wealth; this gap between the rich and poor in China is larger than the US or European nations like Germany and France, and is more in-line with the characteristics of a capitalist country than a socialist one. More importantly perhaps, this inequality in the living standards and development of cities and rural areas has prompted people to migrate to highly populous urban areas, putting a strain on the agricultural industry in the inlands and posing a threat of food shortages in the long-term. 

Notably, alleviating poverty has been a core objective of the CCP over the past two decades; Xi even declared a “complete victory” in alleviating absolute poverty from the country in February 2021. However, while China has undoubtedly made strides in reducing extreme poverty, more than half of China’s 1.4 billion population still has a bare minimum of 12,000 yuan in annual income. On the other hand, China boasts of more billionaires than any other state barring the US with 81 Chinese persons making Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index and China leading the Hurun Global Rich List 2021 with 1058 billionaires (more than any other state including the US). At the same time, China’s unique mixed system of a socialist regime combined with a market-based economy had bred corruption, tax evasion and smuggling amongst the Chinese elite, including members of the CCP. A 2017 report found that China’s parliament was home to about 100 billionaires—truly giving credence to the modern Chinese saying that “those in authority (quan) will be able to acquire money (qian)”. 

‘Common prosperity’ aims to remove such a trend as it marks something that could cause people to rise up in rebellion, thus threatening the CCP’s political control and legitimacy. Since assuming office as President and CCP General Secretary, rooting out corruption has been a highly-touted agenda of Xi’s administration. Through such an agenda, Xi’s has strengthened not only the CCP’s, but also his own power and authority over the country. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign became a pretext to eliminate political rivals and potential successors—much like Mao’s crusade (although his political purge was perhaps less discerning). Xi’s campaign and methodology is hence eerily reminiscent of the great helmsman Mao, putting his “centennial leap” in mobilising ‘common prosperity’ ideals in direct contrast with Mao’s own “Great Leap Forward” that was rooted in a perverse ideology and proved rather catastrophic. 

Therefore, although several official Chinese media outlets have sought to frame the return to ‘common prosperity’ as Xi’s campaign to innovate China’s communist ideology and the CCP’s governance philosophy, the focus on the ideal is in fact merely a resuscitation of the Maoist notion. It is not a progression to a new era in Chinese politics, but rather “a retrogression to the Mao era” aimed at reflecting the CCP’s pursuit to reinstate an egalitarian communist society. In other words, while it appears an almost utopian ideal, when considered in a larger context of Xi’s policies and ambitions thus far, the push for ‘common prosperity’ requires more attention and critique.

Promises and Problems

Xi first emphasised delivering ‘common prosperity’ in his speech to the 19th National Congress of the CCP at the onset of his second term in 2017; however, the ideal has found renewed attention in Beijing’s public messaging in recent months as Xi prepares for his third term. Recent analysis by Bloomberg found a sharp increase in the number of times President Xi referred to the term ‘common prosperity’ from fewer than 10 in 2019 to about 30 in 2020 and more than 60 in 2021, thus showing the rapid pace of heightened commitment to the ideal. 

Xi’s ‘Common Prosperity’ Pilot Programs

Xi has already introduced several policy guidelines to take forward the ‘common prosperity’ agenda. In the CCP’s Central Comprehensive Deepening Reform Commission, Xi approved strengthening anti-monopoly and fair competition laws to promote high-quality development for ‘common prosperity’. Moreover, to pilot test the ‘common prosperity’ model, Xi designated the Zhejiang province—China’s third-richest province, home to numerous IT firms including Alibaba, and one with which Xi shares historical ties as the region’s party secretary from 2004-2007—a demonstration zone. The policy guidelines to realise the model is laid out in a CCP and State Council document released in July 2021. The guidelines not only aim to increase disposable income per capita to 75,000 yuan by 2025, but also mandate raised salaries and social benefits for middle-income and underprivileged people.

Another pilot model for ‘common prosperity’ is the Xiong’an New District that was established in 2017 featuring policies like “standardised income and social welfare perks such as subsidised housing and generous retirement benefits”. Notably however, even after four years of establishing this pilot zone, the region has seen little growth and investment. Although both high and low-income persons benefit from subsidised housing, apartments remain barren as the total population of town is still a little over a million. Simultaneously, Xi is also cracking down on private tutoring to create a ‘fairer’ education system, although it is far more likely that the lucrative private industry will move underground and only be accessible to the ultra-wealthy.

A Crackdown for ‘Control’ Revolution?

Beyond such official policy measures, Xi has also injected the ‘common prosperity’ ideal into the social and cultural domains—like people’s everyday lifestyles—essentially aimed at curbing any modern, “western” activity. In fact, many analysts have likened Xi’s actions to Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that decapacitated the entire Chinese economy. Beijing’s recent policies include restricting children under 18 to only one hour of playing video games to limit addiction. Regulators have mandated restrictions be applied to all devices to protect the physical and mental health of the younger generation from “spiritual opium” that are video games, in the “era of national rejuvenation”. Not only has this curfew adversely impacted the gaming industry, but also opened doors for grossly invasive measures—like Tencent’s facial recognition system that identifies children using adult IDs to evade the ban.

Furthermore, in an extension of ‘common prosperity’, as part of bringing to fruition Xi’s vision of tighter party control for a healthier Chinese society, Beijing has banned broadcasters from televising any “sissy men [effeminate men] and other abnormal aesthetics” and “vulgar internet celebrities”. Instead, Beijing wants to correct the prevailing beauty standards by encouraging Chinese traditions and a socialist revolution culture. Following Beijing’s dictate, Chinese social media platform Weibo banned 145 internet celebrity accounts for a range of reasons (including national sovereignty and territorial integrity) in August, and suspended another 22 k-pop fan accounts for “star-chasing behaviour”. Although Chinese analysts have framed Beijing’s “rectification actions” as a “profound revolution”, they are in fact a blatant “control revolution” with propaganda tools, intimidation tactics and Xi’s ambition to assert greater individual dominance. The growing coercion to study the Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, including at the highest levels of education, is a perfect example of such control. 

A Frenzy of Elite-driven Philanthropy

Simultaneously, Beijing has also clearly urged highly lucrative private firms and high-income individuals to further ‘common prosperity’ by engaging in more philanthropy. In almost a mad rush to stay in the CCP’s good books—and perhaps discourage upcoming actions like nationwide residential property tax—seven Chinese billionaires donated USD 5 billion thus far in 2021 (more than total national charity in 2020). Meituan founder Wang Xing, for instance, pledged USD 2.27 billion in shares after his firm was subject to state scrutiny. In the private sector, Tencent (USD 15 billion), Pinduoduo (USD 15 billion), Alibaba (USD 15.5 billion), and Xiaomi (USD 2.2 billion) have furnished some lavish contributions in a bid to avoid regulatory investigations.

This frenzied top-down philanthropy only goes to show the panic prevalent in China’s business elites. Notably, Alibaba founder (and China’s fourth richest man) disappeared for three months immediately after a controversial speech to high-profile figures in which he criticised the Chinese banking establishment, angering Xi and prompting an anti-monopoly investigation into the company. While firms have little choice but to cooperate to the CCP’s dictate and support ‘common prosperity’ to avoid becoming targets, reform is more difficult when it comes to areas like residential property taxes wherein party members have more to lose. 

Is China Entering a New Political Era?

‘Common prosperity’ is therefore not isolated to the economic domain, but stretching into a ‘purification’ of the Chinese society, and by extension, a vice-like political control held by President Xi and the CCP. It is not therefore surprising that the emphasis on ‘common prosperity’ comes just as Xi is about to embark on his third term in office. The COVID-19 pandemic and the following (albeit brief in China’s case) economic crisis raised the risk of social unrest in China, with early 2020 reports  in global media noting protests in Wuhan and unprecedented levels of discontentment online that forced government censors to work overtime. In this context, Xi has used the CCP’s centennial to launch a new (and rather Edenic) campaign for ‘common prosperity’ to distract citizens and prevent domestic unrest. In other words, Xi has used the philosophy to suppress popular rebellion and exploit people’s frustrations to eliminate his political rivals.

Simultaneously, the drive for ‘common prosperity’ is also very much driven by an international impetus; Beijing no doubt hopes that the move will be viewed by its international audience as a ‘good’ and detract from its dismal human rights record, which has been subject to intense foreign censure over the situations in Xinjiang and Tibet. Although domestic, ‘common prosperity’ is partly a way for Beijing to establish itself as a more credible global leader—after its disastrous ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy efforts—that has the will and capacity to be a pivotal player in global development, prosperity, justice and common security.

In essence, inequality has becoming somewhat of an Achilles’ heel of the Chinese governance system, and tackling it comes as a necessity to maintain the public’s trust in the government—something Confucius believed was even more important than securing material growth and prosperity. However, in practice, the concerted push for the new ‘common prosperity’ model puts social values front and centre and could have dangerous social/cultural repercussions. Economically too, the cost and conditions for doing business in China are bound to increase under the new ‘common prosperity’ era and, as was the case with the Xiong’an New District, this will inevitably put off foreign (and perhaps even domestic) investors. Beijing must ensure that the push for ‘common prosperity’ does not adversely impact a booming economy and follow Mao’s disastrous example by regressing to “common poverty”. ‘Common prosperity’ implies significant CCP intervention in all walks of the Chinese state, from economic to political to cultural—a worrying phenomenon for the international community.

Ms. Mahima Duggal is a Research Associate at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in New Delhi. She is also an Associated Research Fellow at the Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA) of the Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP), Stockholm, and Editorial Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia. Ms. Duggal holds a MA (distinction) in International Security from the Department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS), University of Warwick, UK.

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Future of China’s ‘New Asian Security Concept’ in the emerging regional security landscape

Future of China’s ‘New Asian Security Concept’ in the emerging regional security landscape

By – Manav Lal

In an important foreign policy speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Xi Jinping, championed a new regional security framework for the Asia-Pacific. Building on a previously conceptualised framework by Jiang Zemin in 1999, (“xin anquan guan) Xi put forth the idea for a “New Asian Security Concept” to foster trust building among Asian nations, and enhance security cooperation. Driving home the need for a fresh architecture, he condemned the 65-year-old US-centred “hub-and-spokes” alliance system which he argued, was emblematic of an anachronistic “Cold War security structure”. Additionally, he implicitly specified United States of America’s influence to be the weak link of constructive efforts towards building a more sustainable, and inclusive regional security order in Asia.  The central purpose of the proposed security architecture was to weave tight knit partnerships of organisations and entities, devoid of Washington’s influence, so as to further China’s strategic interests in the region.

Continuing to denounce the philosophy of binding alliance frameworks,  Xi Jinping, crafted an architecture that proposed the    formation  of ‘strategic partnerships’ than formal alliances; Xi’s idea hinged on creating informal and flexible relationships that were rooted in principles of mutual understanding, and trust among its neighbouring states. By extending a similar idea to the security concept, he attempted to showcase multi-pronged benefits for joining the architecture, beginning with the non-obligatory and non-constraining nature of commitment. 

Xi’s efforts behind furthering the security blue print served as a pivot to bolster China’s role in the region “commensurate” with its perceived economic status. By using economic development as a “precondition” for   security cooperation, China dexterously constructed a message for its Asian neighbours-to deepen ties with Beijing and create a “win-win” security architecture. Seven years after its inception, experts and representatives of Asian nations continue to romanticize  the “China solution” to regional security. Several confer Beijing’s efforts to have a significant impact on shaping international relations, and firmly believe in China’s aspiration to uphold regional peace, and pursue sustainable development.  . 

While the proposed architecture has gained prominence, and displays immense potential for operationalising a ‘win-win’ agenda,  the framework’s ‘Achilles Heel’ lies in China’s provocative expansionist strategy. Examples of its aggressive expansion range from China’s militarisation and illegal capture of islands in the South China Sea, clarion call for operationalising the “reunification” process with Taiwan, deepening partnership with South Asian countries, and increased border infiltrations at the Himalayas with India. China’s assertive expansionism is reminiscent of its mission to project dominance in the Indo-Pacific and seek global prominence. Wary of Beijing’s actions, countries are resisting Chinese military and economic expansion causing strategic changes in the Indo-Pacific region. As a consequence,  disenfranchisement with the China model has grown –coupled with doubts over ‘debt trap’ diplomacy projecting economic clout, via inception of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In a freshly emerging regional security landscape through the Indo-Pacific network, what future does Xi’s ‘New Security Concept’ hold?

Building a Rules based security order versus an oppressive one

At its core, the Indo-Pacific outlook has been built on a shared belief of nations to uphold the principles of international law. In a working paper drafted by the State Department, the United States reaffirmed the importance of the rule of law, by pledging to preserve “a free and open” Indo-Pacific where all nations regardless of their size, are “secure” in their ‘sovereignty’ while pursuing their economic ambitions. The same document in the subsequent section also re-iterated the nation’s commitment towards challenging any attempt made to deter the achievement of objectives in the region. Like minded democratic countries in the region have also maintained similar positions with regards to preserving the “blessings” of open seas. In this context, India, US, Japan and Australia —which also constitute the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) grouping —could leverage the opportunity, and sell a distinctive architecture using the Indo-Pacific network which does not compromise ‘territorial sovereignty’ and ensures inclusive economic progress and security cooperation. 

Making constructive use of infrastructure development with neighbouring states through the US-Japan-Australia led Blue Dot Network (BDN), Japan’s Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EXPQI), and utilising India’s Bharatmala, SAGAR and ‘One Sun-One Grid’ initiative under the International Solar Alliance could serve as anchors to showcase mutual development benefits, and counteract China’s concept of ‘mutual economic prosperity’ under its architecture. Initial progress in critical technological infrastructure, collective capacity development, coupled with the Quad’s promising endeavour to create a resilient supply chain for tackling the COVID-19   pandemic, will provide significant impetus to project economic dominance in the Indo-Pacific. Essentially, the Quad will be able to solidify strategic partnerships with neighbouring countries by furthering their economic ambitions which will help in scoring some critical diplomatic points. Concretisation of such economic partnerships would reinforce the advantages of maintaining a stable rules based order, where in countries can thrive without the fear of lawless economic co-optation. 

The Sea Dragon Exercises held in 2020 between United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, and the subsequent Quad+1 military exercises held with Canada and France, are key markers of progress for reaffirming each country’s commitment to strengthen the role of international law in the security domain. Continued affirmations of similar minded nations to uphold international law in the security realm, establishes the long-lasting authenticity of preserving a rules based order. Additionally, the salience of such exercises also underpin the significance of plurilateralism in preserving the rule of law in international relations. At the Raisina Dialogue 2021, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar echoed the need for adopting a plurilateral approach as an alternative to multilateralism, on account of its ‘failure to deliver’.  With the Quad gaining diplomatic momentum, a plurilateral rules based approach could serve as a strong counter to neutralise China’s efforts in promoting a tightly held multilateral system. Such ideological shifts in global governance could significantly influence perceptions of Asian neighbours to align their values with a like-minded Quad, and continue embracing ideologies of a rules based order, rather than retracting from it.   

By maintaining an assertive stance in the region, China has failed to convince its neighbours that it can be a “fair and trustworthy guarantor” of regional security.  If Xi’s concept were to achieve fruition, Beijing needed to construct an architecture, such that neighbouring countries perceived it to be the anchor behind fostering security cooperation based on principles of mutual trust, equality and coordination, echoed by Xi at the CICA. But, China’s belligerent actions have only deepened its threat perception among Asian neighbours, exposing a fundamental contradiction in its foreign policy. Beijing has been relentless while offering ‘carrots’ in the form of economic incentives to its Asian neighbours for necessitating their deference. However, it has been equally committed to its “combative diplomacy” with other countries who do not toe the Chinese line.Such a strategic outlook discloses Beijing’s double standards, and tarnishes the legitimacy of its objective to nurture tight knit partnerships. More importantly, cognisant of the Quad’s strides in propelling a rules based security framework, nations could only deem it as strategic prudence to join hands with a grouping that safeguards their interests, and advances them by upholding the practice of international law. 

 The maritime manoeuvre and the Quad: Optics matter 

Realising security objectives under the Indo-Pacific strategy significantly depends on the operationalisation of the Quadrilateral grouping. While each member state has put forth varied interpretations about the Quad’s central purpose, it is clear that Chinese assertiveness has catalysed dialogue to push for an alternate regional security policy. The virtual summit held among member states earlier in March, 2021, resulted in “the spirit of the quad” which reaffirmed each nation’s commitment to the partnership. Maritime policy was a prominent subject of discussion, with all member states agreeing to prioritise the “role of international law in the maritime domain”. MALBAR 2020 and 2021 naval exercises have demonstrated the seriousness of the promise, and have also showcased the Quad’s willingness to strengthen interoperability, and enhance maritime cooperation.   

The grouping’s specific emphasis towards improving Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) through a coordinated mechanism for tracking developments at the high seas, could spur significant momentum to contain Chinese naval threats. Key developments in MDA could make the Quad a joint forum for deterring unregulated and unreported fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zones of countries troubled by Beijing, thereby enforcing international law.  Additionally, each member state’s defensive endowments at “strategic checkpoints” in South East Asian nations are being developed for accommodating state of the art military equipment, which goes to project its combined military clout. Furthermore, bilateral-geo-spatial intelligence sharing agreements, security treaties, and joint action plans on security cooperation between member states, catalyses the ability of the grouping to shape a cohesive security order with a potential to expand such agreements with other like-minded actors in the region. 

Even though Beijing has made significant strides in the form capacity building, strengthening coordination mechanisms, and financial assistance to institutional secretariats such as the Shanghai Corporation Organisation, CICA, ASEAN+3 dialogue and ASEAN+China dialogue, its effectiveness in achieving security cooperation through the proposed framework has been subprime.  Additionally, while Xi took a strong position to strengthen security cooperation in the maritime domain by embracing a conflict free resolution approach, the Chinese have shown meek commitment towards bolstering maritime cooperation, and remain resilient to use the domain for advancing a sheen of military operations as part of its expansionist trajectory. 

 Actively making an attempt to operationalise a maritime policy, sends a message of re-assurance to deter malevolent activities that omit international norms. This in turn demonstrates the loyalty of the Quad, and its commitment towards being the flagbearers of maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Importantly, an operative maritime policy has the potential to bolster the Quad’s soft power tremendously, with a potential to cause strategic modifications in the security sphere. Countries would re-assess the possibility of joining an alternate security architecture that does not only promise cooperation as part of its maritime policy, but also safeguards their security at the high seas. In this manner, the Quad would gain immense leverage over China to tip the balance of regional security power in it is favour, thereby diminishing the scope of an operational Asian Security Concept. 

Acknowledging strategic imprudence: Need of the hour for the Chinese

In a nutshell, the New Asian Security concept requires a significant strategic overhaul to maintain China’s security posture in the region. Beijing’s lackadaisical efforts to reassure its Asian partners to be the ‘ambassadors’ of security cooperation has spurred considerable uncertainty to align with its vision. An alternate security framework spearheaded by the Quad- using international law as a guarantor of fairness and justice, gives the architecture legitimacy when contrasted with Beijing’s insincere security concept. Additionally, the Quad making progress in devising a functional maritime strategy could propel countries to gravitate towards joining hands with the grouping as a consequence of its power projection and dependability for upholding regional security. China’s strategic weakness lies in its  adversely impacted soft-power with neighbouring countries, and the Quad’s maritime manoeuvre could intensify the weakness. 

Although, China’s economic appeal has made room for unquestionable deference with a few, it cannot rest on its laurels and devise strategies that are solely central to economic prosperity. Beijing needs to reconsider its position on several matters of conflict at the high seas and land borders, before attempting to appease its neighbours to build the New Asian Security Concept as envisaged.

Manav Lal is an Economics and Public Policy graduate from FLAME University, currently interning at Centre for Civil Society, New Delhi.

Tiger vs Dragon? Poland needs to cooperate with the European Union

Tiger vs Dragon? Poland needs to cooperate with the European Union

By – Patryk Szczotka

Broad and shallow approach to Asian countries persists in Polish society to this day. India is no exception – Polish people often talk about Indian food, Bollywood movies, but there is no knowledge about the huge economic and geopolitical potential that lies dormant in this country. The knowledge from the expert bubble is slowly seeping into the rest of the society – the knowledge that this country is located in a place that is increasingly called the new geopolitical center of the world – Asia. China is currently breaking through into Poland’s mainstream discussion about international relations, but India is still a country not well studied. It is in the interest of the Polish government to build a conscious foreign policy in this region of the world. Can India become an important Polish partner in Asia? From the point of view of a young researcher from Poland, whose main field of interest is China, it is difficult to answer this question unequivocally. To answer the aforementioned question,  it is worth examining the current state of Poland-India relationship, its placement in the European framework, as well as the possibilities and difficulties lying in them.

India has more than 1.3 billion inhabitants and is the seventh largest economy in the world, growing the fastest among G20 members. With growth rates of more than 7% of GDP, by 2030 it will not only be the most populous country, but also the third biggest economy in the world. As the world’s largest democracy, India has long advocated for a rules-based, free, open and equal world order, offering its leadership on international platforms at times of crises while following a policy of strategic autonomy. This country has enormous potential at present, and in the future, it can become the third pole of economic and geopolitical power, just behind the US and the People’s Republic of China. From the Polish perspective, it is necessary to embed this knowledge in both academic  and political contexts so as to a nexus with active policymaking.

When it comes to political relations, one can certainly talk about a friendly atmosphere between Poland and India, which can be a prelude to strengthening contacts between states. Apart from Pakistan, India is the only South Asian country with a Polish embassy with the Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in New Delhi is also accredited in  Afghanistan,  Bangladesh,  Bhutan,  Maldives,  Nepal  and Sri Lanka. New Delhi is also one of the few Asian capitals where Poland not only has a diplomatic mission with military attachés, but also maintains the Institute of Polish promoting the country’s culture. In 2018, the Polish Investment and Trade Agency opened a new Foreign Trade Office in Mumbai. In 2019, the first visit of an Indian Foreign Minister to Poland in 32 years took place when Dr. S Jaishankar visited. It underlined the positive accents of cooperation between India and Poland in the international environment. In a joint statement, it was announced that the Polish side appreciated India’s support for the candidacy of Poland for a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for years 2018-2019 and expressed support for India’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat for years 2021-22. It is worth noting, however, that despite the mutual support, this visit is one of the few that representatives of both governments have made to each other. 

The lack of regular contacts has its reflection in economic data. Although Poland is India’s largest trading partner in the Central European region, according to Indian statistics, the total trade turnover in 2019 amounted to only USD 2.85  billion. India’s exports to Poland accounted for 0.48% of India’s total exports. Only 0.15% of India’s imports in 2019 were covered by Poland. It is worth noting that these are data from before the COVID-19 pandemic.  In 2020, trade turnover between Poland and India decreased by 4.2%, which amounted to USD 2.73 billion. The pandemic situation has had a negative impact on contacts between countries, further reducing the dynamics of business contacts.

At present, regrettably, foreign policy towards Asian countries is not the strongest point of the Polish state. Despite the existence of analytical centers and experts with the knowledge needed to create a strategy to face the challenges and opportunities associated with the gradual growth of Asian countries, there is a lack of political will to implement comprehensive solutions. This is particularly evident in the case of China.  In 2015, the Law and Justice party came to power, and approached Chinese proposals made under the aegis of the New Silk Road quite enthusiastically. In the same year President Andrzej Duda participated (although it was a format intended for prime ministers, not heads of state) in 16+1 format summit in Suzhou, after which the Chinese organized his official visit; less than a year later, President Xi Jinping visited Warsaw. Until now, around 40 bilateral agreements have been signed. However, as Professor Bogdan Góralczyk from the University of Warsaw notes, the development of these contacts was significantly weakened after Donald  Trump came to power and declared a trade war with China in 2018 –  Poland is strongly associated  with Washington in terms of security and strategy. For this reason, the  main topic discussed in Poland in the context  of China is primarily the issue of suspicions against Huawei  and the debate on  5G technology. 

The Chinese issue is a very important component of the context of Poland-India relations, as it concerns what foreign policy options not only Poland, but also the European Union has.  This is particularly important due to the fact that Poland – firmly embedded in the economic and political system of the EU – is not capable of pursuing a policy completely detached from the interests of the European community. So, can India compete with China for Poland and Europe?

Both Poland and India support the law-based international order and the free trade system. This naturally facilitates bilateral cooperation as well as that within the European Union (which has now adopted a joint European-Indian roadmap to year 2025). This is particularly important when one looks at difficult relations of the EU with the People’s Republic of China, in which the lack of European unity on many issues makes it difficult to create common areas for cooperation. The lack of a systemic response particularly highlights the dichotomous approach to Beijing as both a partner and a “systemic rival.” 

Economically, the European Union now wants to reduce its dependence on Chinese and other foreign suppliers and limit the ability of  companies supported by foreign  subsidies  to buy EU companies or participate in public tenders. India, in turn,  is focusing on increasing access to various fields of its economy, liberalizing regulations, facilitating operations on the market and creating new business opportunities for foreign partners. At the same time, the current trade exchange between Poland and India does not reflect the potential of these relations. All these facts provide Poland with a window of economic opportunities. 

Geopolitical challenges and the question of different values (as in the case of China) do not seem to be a critical issue in the case of relations with India, which makes it possible to present them as a less controversial choice when it comes to the development of economic and political relations. The current situation will not make India a substitute for cooperation with China, but it may open the door to greater involvement in the development of relations. Positive incentives for the development of relations also come from the United States. The reason is the increasingly closer partnership between the US and India and the tightening of NATO’s position on China.

However, this does not mean that the path to cooperation is one without obstacles. The Polish  and European  elites  lack an understanding of India as a major player not only in the rivalry between the US and China  (to which the European Union is forced to respond if it wants to remain a major player in the international community),  but also on the global stage. The lack of understanding is mutual: both India and the European Union have complex political systems, and in     the case of both actors, the expert community that could explain and interpret such complexity is small.

There is another potential problem between Europe and India. This is a matter of concern about India’s position as a so-called “swing state”. Researchers Richard Fontaine and Daniel  Kliman  have defined swing states as  countries that have large,  developing economies and occupy central positions in  a given  region. They are increasingly active at the regional and global levels and want changes in the existing international order, but they do not seek to break the overlapping network of global institutions, rules and relationships. Despite significant changes in foreign policy made from year 2014, India continues to be guided by the idea of “strategic autonomy” – an independent foreign policy aimed at maximizing the realization of national interests. For this reason, it is worth remembering that common values can help in  cooperation, but it is common interests that create a real partnership.

In the final analysis, Poland has room for maneuver when it comes to the development of economic relations with India, but the matter is a bit more complicated when it comes to political relations. Nowadays, Poland – unlike India – cannot afford strategic autonomy. This forces it to define its foreign policy within frameworks such as the European Union and NATO. The situation is also complicated by the Chinese issue. It can be expected that due to the cooling relations between the EU and the PRC (best examples are the frozen Comprehensive Agreement on Investment or the Lithuanian situation), the European community will look for alternative partners in Asia. Taking into account the rather passive Polish policy towards China, it is not an exaggeration to say that the matter looks similar in relation to India. It is therefore primarily at the European level that decisions will be made as to whether there will be a positive development between the EU and India. There are many potential benefits to making this decision, but it is also not without its difficulties. Time will tell what the leaders of the European community will decide to do.


*Patryk Szczotka (@p_szczotka) is a MSc student at “China and International Relations” double degree program at Aalborg University and the University of International Relations (国际关系学院) in Beijing. His research interests include political and economic relations between the CEE countries and the PRC.

India-Japan-US trilateralism:  Shaping the Indo-Pacific and its challenges

India-Japan-US trilateralism: Shaping the Indo-Pacific and its challenges

By – Simran Walia,

The evolution of the Indo-Pacific region has its origins in the interest of dependence on the Sea lanes of the Indian Ocean for energy and trade. China’s growing assertiveness in the region has driven both India and Japan to have a reformed partnership with the US, keeping in mind the presence of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s collaboration with Japan in the region underlines the political and strategic trust between India and Japan. The growing cooperation of the US, Japan and India on various issues regarding infrastructure development and maritime security reflects that each nation views China’s aggressive behaviour with caution. How does India-Japan-US cooperation in the Indo-Pacific remain vital  to countering China’s belligerence in the region? In the post-pandemic order, what differences have emerged between the three nations in terms of their strategic interests and conduct vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific?

In 2016 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan, he made his desire of strengthening the relations between India and Japan and labelled their relations as, ‘special strategic and global partnership’. While their bilateral relations have been deepening, Modi and then Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seemed keen on nurturing an emerging trilateral relationship with the United States. In the joint statement, the two leaders agreed on the need to expand their bilateral relations to promote trilateral cooperation with major partners in the regions, one of them being the US. The trilateral aimed to promote the rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific and increase engagement with the ASEAN countries to provide an alternative to the Chinese investments, which would lay the groundwork for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. 

The trilateral also fits together with the Obama administration’s dire commitment to ‘Rebalance to Asia’ by encouraging its allies. The three sides held the inaugural US-Japan-India trilateral dialogue in 2015 at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. The current Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga also supports the trilateral cooperation between the three countries and aims at enhancing it over time. 

Their trilateral relations have seen a boost since 2015 when India decided to include Japan as a permanent participant in its annual Malabar naval exercises with the United States.. The decision to expand the Malabar exercises is a significant yet turning point for the US-Japan-India relationship. The three countries have also been a part of the revitalized Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) framework with Australia. Malabar’s expansion also saw Canberra’s inclusion in 2020 which further enunciated the continued importance of the exercise. 

Maritime security remains a central pillar in this trilateral relationship. The navies of the three countries also meet at the biennial RIMPCA exercise, where India started participating since 2014. Furthermore, Indian and Japanese navies too meet for bilateral exercise JIMEX. This trilateral cooperation has been promoted further in areas like counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, security in areas like space and cyberspace and quality infrastructure investment. 

Japan has also demonstrated leadership in terms of connecting the economic growth poles in the subregions of the Indo-Pacific through its Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (EPQI). Moreover, Japan is working with both India and the US to advance infrastructure, connectivity and capacity building in the Indo-Pacific. 

China continues to increase its involvement in the Indian Ocean region as well as the South China Sea, with the development and infrastructure projects of Bangladesh and Pakistan. New Delhi’s concerns regarding Beijing’s intentions in the region has pushed its alignment closer to the US-Japan alliance. Their trilateral cooperation is also significant because it helps in connecting the US alliances and partnerships in East Asia with a South Asian anchor in India. The recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban has also put pressure on other countries like China, Japan and India to provide support to the region for ensuring peace. In this regard, Japan has been supporting the country through its aid and assistance and this trilateral framework could further work towards ensuring peace in the region, wherein, India and Japan could contribute towards peace in Afghanistan. 

Country specific positions on the Trilateral 

Japan was the first country to come up with the notion of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region. The then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called this region, the ‘Seas of prosperity, governed by freedom, rule of law and the market economy and that it would be free from force or coercion’. In 2016, at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI), Abe unveiled Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP). The fundamental aim of the strategy is shared prosperity which also necessitates improving connectivity and infrastructure projects along with maintaining peace and stability. 

PM Suga has also emphasized the FOIP strategy and visited the United States to meet with President Joe Biden in April 2021. One of the main agendas of their meeting was cooperating and strengthening the vision of the Indo-Pacific region. Japan has been trying to protect its interests in the East China sea against the rampant intrusions by China around the Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by China as Diaoyu Islands. Japan claims this area as Senkaku Islands, which is spread across the Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Coast of the US and Canada. This area endures a significant volume of commercial and military traffic and is an important SLOC for Japan. Therefore, to protect these lanes and keep them free and open to sustain trade, Japan aims to build a network of US allies. Furthermore, the core element of Japan’s Indo-Pacific strategy is economic in terms of identifying and expanding cross-cutting sectors that allow Tokyo to displace China while creating regional security. 

Concurrently, India is considered a vital partner in Japan’s FOIP strategy owing to their shared vision of goals as they are the Asian maritime powers. The two countries have been strengthening their cooperation in areas of maritime security, connectivity and also as stakeholders in the QUAD. One of the common concerns of these three nations is that of China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, for which they cooperate and make efforts in strengthening their position in the region and counter Chinese moves. India also unveiled its Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative which was followed by PM Modi’s vision of the Indo-Pacific. India also found consonance in Japan’s Vientiane Vision 2.0, whose objective is to ensure the rule of law, maritime security, capacity building and disaster prevention. This consonance proves to be pertinent for the US for the trilateral to flourish further in terms of securing peace in the Indo-Pacific region. 

At the Quad summit held in March 2021, India held the position of navigating through political and security concerns along with ensuring stability and peace in the Indo-Pacific. India also seeks to uphold the freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific and to serve as a net security provider in the region. India’s relationships with partners across the region determine the nature of India’s role and its participation in networks like the Quad and the trilateral arrangements, such as that between India-US-Japan. The Biden administration can also capitalize on its opportunities to cooperate with India and showcase its vision for the Indo-Pacific by collaborating on capacity building, infrastructure development and the region’s post-pandemic recovery. 

India and Japan have made steady progress towards Tokyo’s first large defence sale. Furthermore, Japan has also provided India with the US-2 amphibian aircraft which enables better defence relations between the two. The deepening ties between India and Japan are crucial for the interplay with the United States. As ties between India and Japan grow closer strategically, there will be a push from Tokyo to align closely with the United States. Beijing sees the relationship between India and Japan as a concern, which would further bolster the trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan and India. 

In Washington, the Biden Administration believes that India is critical to the US strategy of the Indo-Pacific as the two countries share a common vision for it to be free and open, amidst China’s growing assertiveness. In line with the common vision of the US and India, Japan also comes to play a crucial role as it was the first country to come up with the concept of the free and open Indo-Pacific. The United States has also played a vital role in signalling Tokyo and New Delhi that further accelerated growth in their strategic relationship. 

Challenges ahead of their trilateral cooperation 

India has been an important country in the geopolitical strategic alignment which is influencing the Indo-Pacific strategy in the US and Japan. All three nations are highly committed to securing a stable rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific. 

All three countries have their down divergences with China but Japan’s strategy is shaped by the complex interplay of security and economic interests within the Japan-US-China. Tokyo’s approach in the Indo-Pacific is also shaped by the quality infrastructure financing, promoting trade liberalization and trying to put efforts to ease the tensions with Beijing. Washington has been nurturing a zero-sum competition with Beijing by committing to rules-based economic governance. 

The US also believes in the networked security architecture and the Quad, which does not align with the trilateral cooperation between the US, India and Japan. It is believed that if there is an escalating competition of the US with Beijing, the US would have to consider the military dimensions of the Quad to uphold the international order. China sees the Quad as a military alliance aimed at containing China and also as a Japanese attempt to marginalize China. However, the Quad is founded on issue-based alignment and is not a military alliance. 

To keep the SLOC free and open to sustain trade, Japan has aimed to build a network of US allies, despite Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is a part of Abe’s economic policy in helping Japan combat deflation with private investment. America’s withdrawal from the TPP and India’s issues with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have created uncertainties on trade multilateralism rather than providing clarity of the three nation’s economic vision for the Indo-Pacific.

There is also a concern of Tokyo relying on Beijing for trade as it is Japan’s top trading partner despite tensions over the Senkaku islands. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Japan planned on diversifying its supply chains elsewhere to lessen the burden on China and reduce its reliance on China. 

India’s strategy is complementary to the US and Japan’s strategy for the region, and has emphasised on ‘inclusiveness’ in its Indo-Pacific position. However, not being on the same page is a major hindrance for the trilateral. 

There is also a lot of scope to scale up the trilateral cooperation in areas such as counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, maritime security and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Furthermore, there is a need to formalise the JAI trilateral dialogue through regular summit level meetings and also the expansion of the multidimensional partnership to areas that are beyond strategic issues. 

The US, Japan and India will benefit in security and prosperity terms from stability in the Indo-Pacific and have a joint responsibility to safeguard this order. The three nations should focus on strengthening their trilateral cooperation through the Malabar exercises. 

Since India and Japan have signed the logistics agreement, that is, Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) in 2020, the three nations could look for ways to improve the logistical coordination through ACSA.

Despite certain challenges and Quad being at the forefront, the three nations have been managing common security concerns such as securing the maritime global commons and combating terrorism quite efficiently. Japan has also shown its leadership through the expanded partnership for quality infrastructure. Tokyo is working separately with India and the US to advance infrastructure, connectivity and capacity building in the Indo-Pacific. Japan and India have also collaborated in conceptualizing third country cooperation through the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). Third-country collaborative infrastructure cooperation has also started to take shape in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The idea is purely to coordinate bilaterally and also within the trilateral framework of India-US-Japan for advancing strategic infrastructure. 

The US-Japan-India trilateral Infrastructure Working Group can also explore projects like the Mekong-river basin and the Bay of Bengal. The three nations can explore opportunities to cooperate in new technologies and digital infrastructure. 

It is important to understand that the US, Japan and India will have to work bilaterally and trilaterally to make China engage in maintaining the liberal order. In the coming times, due to the complexity in the geopolitical nature of the Indo-Pacific region, it will be a crucial trilateral framework to look forward to in the future. There have been a lot of emerging trilaterals in the Indo-Pacific region and the recent one being, the US, The UK and Australia (AUKUS). The four leaders of the QUAD will be meeting recently in Washington, wherein they will discuss China’s aggressive behaviour in the region, Covid situation and how the world will grapple with the post-Covid situation, Tech supply and Supply chain resilience.

Simran Walia is a Research Scholar, pursuing M.Phil in Japanese Studies under the Centre for East Asian Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Prior to this, she was working as a Research Assistant at ORF, New Delhi. She has published articles and papers in magazines and websites like ‘The diplomat’, ‘the Geopolitics’, ‘Indian Defence Review’, Global Policy Journal and elsewhere. Her research interests include Japanese politics and foreign policy and East Asian foreign policy too. she can be reached at Twitter handle: @simranwalia10